It's a River, Not a Lake... | about | cover | contents | back | next |

Current Technology Innovations

The Maricopa Community Colleges are pursuing a wide variety of technology innovations, in three currents: networking, authoring, and funding.

Over the past few years departments and labs have invested in local area networks with servers which offer access to both common applications and information. There are over 130 local networks, mostly AppleTalk, which are connected to each other. The libraries are installing local area networks so that information resources at the college, or from external sites, can be accessed by multiple stations. These local area networks are growing in number and in the sophistication of task because of local decisions made in response to need and the maturing of the networking technology.

Looking outward, Information Technology Services has provided and promoted access to the Internet for the colleges. Excitement over the quality of professional contacts and communication has been developing among faculty and staff for a few years. Just within the past year a sprinkling of student-instructional uses of the Internet were beginning to develop.

Access to the Internet has contributed to the introduction of other applications, in particular the MariMuse project. Established at Phoenix College, this implementation of MUSE brings a powerful community building resource to a learning community.

Information Technology Services has also provided and promoted a districtwide microwave two-way video network, named VCN. With this technology, courses presented at one college can be simultaneously presented at other college sites. Students at each locale can be seen and heard by the instructor at the host college.

Besides networking, courseware authoring is a strong innovation current in MCCCD. As development tools have become more sophisticated, more faculty, as part of authoring teams, have been drawn into the creation of courseware. GCC has invested in Toolbook for Windows as a multimedia development tool in several disciplines. At MCC, a group of developers is producing magnificent courseware/simulations using NeXTStep.

The third current is funding. Faculty, departments, colleges and the entire District have begun to seek external funding in a much more concerted way. For example, several NSF grants for technology and curriculum change have been awarded during the past year. Colleges are seeking partnerships with business and industry--leveraging our ability to deliver training toward the receipt of both technology products and expertise.

In the course of preparing this report, two technology innovations were examined in more depth. The first, VCN, is being actively promoted in the District as an instructional delivery medium. The second, Athena, is, at least for the moment, a path not taken.

VCN: The Video Conference Network (VCN) is a multi-site microwave video network. VCN is used for delivering instruction, meetings, and special events across the network to recipient colleges within MCCCD. Nine sites have installed a CODEC unit, with other support devices, to send and receive the video transmission. At the present time no sites external to MCCCD are connected.

VCN began operation during Spring 1990. Since then 24 classes have been offered on the network. For Fall '93 four courses were broadcast, with eleven scheduled for Spring 1994. It is expected that VCN will send 10-15 courses per semester, with about 2.7 sections for each course; i.e. an average of 1.7 recipient sites per course. The four courses in Fall 1993 had an average of 27 students per course. In addition to courses, VCN has also supported 60 meetings and five teleconferences during the past three years.

The investment in VCN has been interesting to place in the Schema I: Idea To Reality. It looks like the Zone 2: Learn more about the Idea, and the Zone 4: Implement the idea Large-scale happened simultaneously. That is a slight overstatement in that some key people were already quite knowledgeable with the system. Nonetheless, most of the participants in the implementation (faculty, deans, technicians) were novices to the technology.

So, VCN might be termed a large-scale experiment. And judgements about it need to keep in mind that, in many ways, we're just 'kicking its tires' to see what value it might have for us. There are possibilities of large off-site services, links to even wider distribution via satellite, as well as a variety of internal uses. Our current use is very introductory and exploratory.

During the first seven semesters of use a number of challenges emerged. There have been many technical problems to resolve, including the consistency of transmission; training faculty in the use of the system; supporting faculty in reworking materials to fit the medium; and finding the right level of technical support before and during the transmission itself.

While these problems have been pesky, nontrivial, and only partly resolved, the larger problem has been to try to coordinate the scheduling and promotion of courses among the colleges. So that information can be included in the published course schedules, commitments have to be made 6-9 months in advance of the actual course offering. While this corresponds to the colleges' earliest deadlines, the coordination has proven to be difficult to master. In fact, it has been possible only with the commitment given by the deans of instruction. As of this writing it looks as though progress is being made on all fronts, such that the contours of what it will take to make VCN work are becoming much better defined.

On the surface, the only way a college benefits from VCN is by receiving courses, not by sending them. Assuming that each college gets its own registration, whether a sending or a receiving site, the sending site has the following costs: employs a faculty member to teach the class, as usual, but places that class in an expensively-equipped room ($5,000-10,000), pays a technician to look in on the room to see if everything is working properly, and pays for training the faculty member and a rework of the curriculum materials. For the sending college, there are only increased costs and no additional revenues.

For the Receiving College, there are some benefits. A course is being offered which is probably not being offered in any other format, so students are being well-served, and some revenue is being generated. The receiving college also has costs: an expensively-equipped room, pays a technician to look in on the room to see if everything is working properly, and pays a clerk to assist during the class. These expenses are less than the sending college, some new revenue is generated, and students are able to take courses otherwise not available at their college.

Why would a college want to send a course on VCN? Besides the excitement of leading in a new venture and the pride associated with that leadership, it can only be seen as an investment in future possibilities. Having this knowledge and experience prepares the college to take advantage of opportunities for, who knows, delivery of courses internationally, or other opportunities which may develop the revenue to pay for the service.

Four recommendations:

  1. Identify a limited clientele of faculty and their courses. Provide focused training and resources to this group to learn to utilize the medium to its best purpose, and to rework the organization and presentation of material, class handouts, etc. Train these people to be really good at the use of the medium.

  2. Prepare a comprehensive operational plan, for a two-year period of time, with target dates for the major milestones for each semester's course schedule, planning for cross-college promotion to build enrollment, assigned areas of responsibility for key people.

  3. Set a date for an evaluation, including cost/benefits.

  4. Don't invest substantially more money in hardware until the current large-scale experiment has been evaluated.

Note: As of Spring 1994, VCN will be managed at RSCC. However, the aforementioned recommendations are still encouraged.

Athena: The Athena Project from MIT points the way to a possible future, namely the distributed client/server model. In Athena many high-end workstations are networked together with some server computers. While most applications run on the workstations themselves, each of the server computers has specialized services to deliver to the workstations: handling printing requests and authorization, file storage, and user authentication, to name a few.

With Athena a user can sit at any workstation and have access to his/her personal files and have access to any available software program. Thus, Athena combines features that are common in mainframe computing, without a mainframe computer, with features that personal computer users have enjoyed, like local processing and a graphic user interface.

Because Athena is a network, inter-user communication is available both as an instant message and as E-mail.

Athena runs on workstations and servers that themselves run on the UNIX operating system. Much software currently available in MS DOS, Windows or Mac OS is not available under UNIX, so the current software selection is limited. Of course, as third party software is developed for UNIX, the number of options will increase.

A great deal of the functionality of Athena is currently available to most MCCCD users. Most users have access to file and application servers. Nearly all employees take advantage of A-1 for interpersonal mail.

The value that Athena adds is that it is a comprehensive client/server system where all users have access to documents and applications on servers without relying on a single, large computing resource like a VAX computer. Since personal documents and all applications are stored on a relative few servers, and since it is a consistent system from any workstation, maintenance, upgrades and training can be handled by a smaller staff than other systems.

In Spring 1992 LeRoy Stevens, PC, led a project "to determine whether Athena technologies are appropriate and feasible to meet instructional objectives in the community college environment." (Athena Year End Report, LeRoy Stevens) Beset by installation problems, the end-of-the-semester time crunch, and ultimately by the loss of hope caused by budget shortfall, the investigation was less thorough than originally planned. In his report, Stevens writes that faculty were favorably impressed with the workstations, but that multi-user software was very expensive. Evaluators were concerned that Athena would cost too much in operational support. And, because of its heavy use of the network, Athena would certainly tax our current network resources. The cost of Athena workstations is sobering, at $10,000 and up.

In early June 1992, Alan Jacobs, SCC, and Naomi Story, DO, visited Iowa State University at Ames to investigate Project Vincent, an implementation of Athena. Project Vincent has been in operation for two academic years, serving research needs and upper division students in science and engineering. Following the distributed networking model, authority for Vincent is also distributed to department level Kahunas, local leaders who assume most of the responsibility for authorizing access to that area's workstation resources, and control over software updates, for example.

Iowa State, as well as MIT, is convinced that they can manage many more stations with fewer people because of Athena's sophisticated networking control system.

Overall assessment

  1. Athena is too expensive; not Athena itself, but the workstations that run it. When Athena operates on hardware in the $3,000-4,000 range, it will look better to us.

  2. Athena's distributed client/server model reflects current major trends in computing. For this reason we should keep in touch with Athena, as it matures over the next few years.

It's a River, Not a Lake: Current Technology Innovations
© January 1994 Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
Maricopa Community Colleges

The Internet Connection at MCLI is Alan Levine --}
Comments to