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The Internet, or Information Superhighway, is providing mechanisms for fundamental changes in the way people learn.
5.1 Electronic Mail Electronic mail is the principle tool of the Internet, by far. As has been discussed, it is a simple, portable, inexpensive mechanism for rapid communication between individuals and groups. It serves as the foundation for almost all other network tools.
5.2 Discussion Lists / Limited Conferencing Organized topical mailing and discussion lists (listservs and USENET newsgroups) have repeatedly proved their value to users world-wide. There are now well over 20,000 such lists facilitating discussion and collaboration on myriad fronts. Some institutions (e.g. Northwestern University) make heavy use of them for instructional support. They are heavily utilized in support of all levels of distance education, as they provide a mechanism for concurrent information dissemination as well as facilitating discussion among learners ¯ principle weaknesses of most distance education technologies.
5.3 Telnet Along with e-mail, telnet is a standard application available to all Internet users. It negotiates interactive connections with remote computers, in many cases communicating with database search engines. One of the most popular uses for telnet is to access library catalogs during research.
5.4 FTP and Gopher FTP and Gopher are protocols for storing and retrieving files from remote computer systems. With FTP, items need to be transferred to the user's local computer for perusal. Gopher incorporates the file transfer capabilities of FTP, and adds a hierarchical menu structure to simplify navigation. Users can also read text files as they go. Keyword searching is fairly straightforward, and it is generally a user-friendly interface.
Gopher became enormously popular in the mid 1990's for the provision of institutional information. Its non-graphics-dependent interface makes it a highly flexible and functional tool, usable by almost everyone on the Internet.
5.5 World-Wide Web The Web incorporated the capabilities of most earlier tools, and added the ability to handle various media types in a much more usable graphical hypertext environment. (Chadwick 1995) Interfaces for the Web exist on all computer platforms, and are easy to use ¯ so much so that Web usage has exploded in the past year, and the amount of academic and commercial information available is increasing at an almost exponential rate. The amount of information available from a desktop computer provides incredible support for research on a variety of topics, including distance education.
5.6 SLIP and PPP These acronyms refer to two standard protocols for utilizing a graphical interface to the Internet through a regular telephone line and modem. Previously, users had to travel to a central location if they wanted to use tools which relied on graphics technologies ¯ much like the similar need required to utilize satellite conferencing technology.
5.7 Advanced Conferencing Software Conferencing software is still very much in the early stages on the Internet. NetPhone from Electric Magic permits real-time transfer of audio across the Internet, much like a telephone call. Some users in Hong Kong are now experimenting to see what other components they would need in order to listen to the U.S. National Public Radio broadcasts through the Internet, as they are not available locally. CU-SeeMee is an experimental one-many and/or many-many video repeater. It is an experimental tool using standard network protocols to provide video feeds to anyone who wants one. Videoconferencing from the desktop will be feasible once more network lines have been upgraded to higher signal capacity. Where fiber-optic cable has been installed, the capacity is already far beyond that provided by satellite. Another drawback to computer solutions is the limited image resolution currently available. Now the hardware and software need to take the next step into utility and viewability.
5.8 Proprietary Software vs. Open Standards Many information service companies are offering purpose-built proprietary software for specialized applications on the Internet. A common example is Ameritech's Advanced Video Service, which provides full-motion videoconferencing over standard dial-up lines. (Lindstrom 1994) Those which fail to incorporate the ability to utilize standard network communication protocols will achieve very limited market penetration. Tremendous amounts of information on every subject imaginable are being provided on servers throughout the Internet. They are following standard protocols, which are constantly under creation or revision. Software which is not able to speak to or query these resources is crippled when it comes to actual utility.
The principle use for such tools as Co-Motion Lite collaboration software from Bittco Solutions, or Video Notes from Lotus Software, is for specialized projects with a limited and clearly identified pool of users. In this setting, such tools can excel because they are able to advance far beyond the state of the art for standards software, as they can ignore those rules to suit their own development process.
5.9 Virtual Reality The next big direction to be taken along the Internet pathways will be the development of virtual reality into a functional network tool. This has the potential to be an order of magnitude more effective than any mechanism previously developed!
The potential for the Internet to revolutionize the field of distance education lies in the comparative simplicity of the tools available; the ease of document authoring; low cost compared to satellite technologies; the continuing trend away from mainframe servers and towards increased power on the desktop; and the theoretical ability of anyone, anywhere to utilize it. Previously impossible institutional mandates for distance education programmes are now becoming practical within the "geographic, demographic, social and economic restraints placed upon them." (Mugridge 1991)
A summary of computer networking advantages over other distance education technologies includes:
Fundamentally, the Internet expands service provision to the desktop level. Tools developed for the Internet can be utilized from any location, so that learners can be freed from the requirement of travelling to a specific location for instruction. The idea is not new, but the tools being developed make its implementation much more viable. Successive waves of support tools will be increasingly simple to use, moving towards transparency of computing technology. This will be aided by the growing technological literacy of the user populations ¯ a literacy which is not a foregone conclusion for all users. (Howard 1993)
While some users are attempting to run completely Internet-based distance education programs, most of those involved are using the Web to supplement classroom instruction. One user praised the dynamic nature of Web information, as data (e.g. syllabi) can be rapidly modified as the circumstances change. However, this capability implies that learners will need to have full Internet access from hand-held units so that they do not rely on printouts for accuracy! The field is already looking beyond what had been anticipated (desktop access), and calling for a more comprehensive version of the anyone, anytime, anywhere education provision model. (Windley 1994)
4. Tools Available for Distance Education
6. Problems and Challenges Of Distance Education