Web Courses for Northern B.C.:
Building a Virtual Community

Basia Siedlecki
University of Northern British Columbia


Working with a grant from several agencies, our team's goal, at the beginning of the summer of 1996, was to produce a framework for web course development specifically suited to providing this option to people with limited Internet access in isolated northern communities in British Columbia. In conjunction with this project we also developed four on-line senior level and graduate courses in English. The challenge was to include a large database, but keeping in mind slow modem connections, allow for reasonable access times. To facilitate this one of the members of our team developed a virtual pagination Perl search engine. This program permits a standard page-based referencing system, both for bibliographical and study purposes. It also permits an indexed access or word search, yielding the results in a menu, so that only relevant material need be downloaded, a page at a time (naturally we also built a text conversion program to transform ASCII text to a form that the search engine can use).

In an effort to make the courses as accessible as possible, we pursued a minimalist look, keeping graphics uncomplicated (16 colour maximum with a strong bias towards 2 colour line drawings) and redundant (though we did indulge in a few line drawing image maps to foster a sense of spacial orientation and atmosphere). We customised existing communications software to foster a wide range of interactive potentials, including community input and commentary. As well, we provided students with long-distance connections the option of downloading large chunks of learning materials at a time, rather than insisting on on-line work. Naturally, the aim of our programming was to make the whole package as friendly as possible, both to students, and to future course developers.

Keywords: distance, education, Internet, PERL, English, graduate, courses, virtual, pagination, campus, search, engine

Working with grants from the Open Universities Planning Council, The Innovations Fund of British Columbia and the University of Northern British Columbia, our team's goal, at the beginning of the summer of 1996 was to develop four senior level and graduate on-line courses and to produce a framework for future web course development suited specifically to providing this option to people with limited Internet access in isolated northern communities in British Columbia. The challenge was to suit the pedagogy to the medium, utilize the potential for expanding and mimicking normal academic and social interactions (to limit student attrition) while not exceeding the technical capabilities of the clients - students in remote, poorly serviced areas. The second half of the project aimed at allowing future course developers (not necessarily extremely skilled at computer use) to develop highly individualized, yet still physically viable courses for the same technical milieu.

To date, three of the four courses are near completion: English 420/620 First Nations Literature, English 430/630 Canadian Literature, and English 440/640 Postcolonial Literature. A further course, English 470/670 Creative Writing is under development and presenting some unique challenges of its own. All are scheduled to be offered to UNBC students in January 1997. In this paper I will refer to all of these courses, raise salient points about each and consider the development and evolution of our web-based distance education schema.

We had two guiding principles when we embarked on this project, the first was to actively try to minimize the obstacles to student success in web-based distance education courses and the second to tailor the courses to the technical limitations of our northern clients (students). An informal survey of attrition rates for web-based courses indicated that one can expect a third to a half of registered students to drop out. In an attempt to counteract this trend, we addressed what we felt were the greatest obstacles to successfully completing a distance web course: isolation and pacing.

Dealing with the former problem sparked a great deal of debate among the team. Our research yielded many interesting and innovative suggestions ranging from the incorporation of student and instructor photos and soundbites conveying greetings (Jeager), to the incorporation of on-line chat sessions. Most of these solutions were not practical for our particular students, because of technical limitations. We finally decided on a common front end (which can be viewed at http://donne.fac.unbc.edu) which emulated the spatial orientation of the University of Northern British Columbia (figure 1).

Figure1 - Access the imagemap at: http://quarles.unbc.edu/english/demo/university.html

Since we were developing a virtual campus, we felt free to modify the actual layout of the school, to simplify and more clearly delineate geographical areas with specific social, cultural and academic functions. We did this thorough a series of line drawing image maps (with textual backups for the graphically challenged browsers). The maps are meant to simulate a learning community. Links lead to specific areas, only one of which is a learning centre. The rest facilitate various types of communication and allow the student access to services they would be able to use were they at the campus in person. The areas dedicated to communication attempt to mimic the social milieu of a university; a student lounge, for instance, allows students in a given course to communicate without the presence of the instructor. Other areas on the map facilitate discussion groups which include all registered students and involved faculty, and others yet allow for community and general public contributions. A student wishing to speak to a faculty member can virtually go to the administration building and contact the person in question. A student in need of library materials simply accesses the virtual library and has access to all the resources that a normal (local) UNBC student can use. A student in need of a student loan can contact Student Services. By integrating the greater collegiate experience into our course interface we hoped to create a sense of virtual community, to provide the remote student with the sense of belonging to a larger academic milieu. In essence, we were trying to create a part of a lifestyle, focused on learning, but involving all sorts of social and professional interactions. We anticipated that this would alleviate some of the feelings of isolation that distance students regularly experience. As well, we hoped that providing a virtual academic community would engage the student in the spirit of learning and provide him or her with the opportunity for and assurance of support: academic, social, personal, financial, etc. Finally, an interesting corollary is Dr. Dee Horne's decision to actively solicit community input and reaction to her First Nations Literature course, using the web medium to break down some of the traditional us-and-them researcher-and-subject barriers embedded in the pedagogical process. Not only does this gesture decentralize the geographical, ideological and authoritative foci of the class, which in itself emulates the structure of the Web, but it also engages geographically isolated students in an active, relevant and "real" discourse with similarly dispersed and intellectually involved people.

Pacing of the courses was another issue that sparked much debate within the production team. Various sources suggest various approaches to pacing a web-based distance education course (Jaeger, Johnson, Gilbert). Some advocate a very rigidly structured course with strict deadlines and an inflexible schedule and some prefer a departure from linearity and temporality. We found that the choice was as much a pedagogic as a practical one. Dr. Karin Beeler, author of English 430 - Canadian Literature, felt that a rigid temporal structure would keep students from falling behind. In developing her course then, we planned on writing a chron script to release each successive lecture at the appropriate time, one each week. The readings and assignments are correspondingly issued. As well, her course requires student discussion and input on a timely and topical basis. Dr. Dee Horne, author of English 420 - First Nations Literature, felt that she also needed a temporal backbone to her course and so requires student input and timed assignments. She also has student seminars which are peer reviewed and graded, forcing an element of temporality on the course. However, she also allowed the students flexibility in not limiting their access to the lecture notes, in fact, the lecture notes are organized as a searchable database, with no restriction on the subject or area of search. Dr. David Dowling, on the other hand, decided to fully embrace the a-temporal and a-hierarchical nature of the web and resisted structure in his course, English 440 - Postcolonial Literature. Essentially, it is completely self-paced, based on a collection of annotations and notes organized as hypertext links to both local projects (The Australia and New Zealand Studies in Canada, an on-line journal edited by Dowling) and remote sites. At this time it is limited only by administrative consideration, though he foresees a time when this will not be a constraint.

Tailoring the courses to the northern technical climate was also a great challenge. Throughout the course production period, we conducted an on-line survey of the technical capabilities of our potential clients. We were also working in close association with the Don Precosky of the College of New Caledonia, which has campuses and computer labs in many northern towns. We were in contact with several local Internet providers and with telephone and telecommunications companies. Our basic problems were slow modem connections, old hardware supporting old browsers, primitive telephone lines, and prohibitive long distance costs for students in communities without Internet providers or living outside of communities altogether. Many of our potential students were working with text-only browsers. Keeping these limitations in mind, we designed courses that would limit the on-line time students would have to spend. We also needed to limit the size of files students would be accessing, and wrote programs to ensure that no one would spend frustrating minutes downloading large chunks of text.

Our first and most obvious decision was to limit the size and quality of graphics. As I mentioned earlier, our image maps were all stylized line drawings - using two colours (figure 2).

Figure 2 - access the image map at: http://quarles.unbc.edu/english/demo/course.html

The rest of the graphics were limited to a maximum of 16 colours and were redundant. For future course developers we built an on-line graphics and icons library utilizing 16 colour GIFs. We avoided the use of sound bites and video clips altogether as well. All the work done in HTML FRAMES is redundant - complete NOFRAME versions of the documents are available. All icons and navigation buttons have textual alternatives.

The next step was to organize the textual material to minimize download times. To do this we built a virtual pagination program package in PERL. Essentially, the raw ASCII text is run through a pre-processing program which I developed. The program organizes the text into virtual pages - the length of the page is specified by the instructor, and a running header is fixed on each "page". A custom footer can also be added if desired, and a link to the home page with or without an icon. The program transforms special and foreign characters into numerical HTML tags. It runs on a UNIX system, but uses no command line arguments, interfacing instead through a series of questions. The preprocessed text is then stored in a simple text file. It is accessed thorough a CGI form which activates a Virtual Pagination Search Engine program developed by Dr. Stan Beeler. The program produces an index and allows for Boolean and searches. The index feeds the students a single "page" of text at a time. The Boolean search produces a list of "hits," which appear as hot links in a list. Accessing any one of the links downloads the pertinent page with the search term in parenthesis at the top and in bold letters whenever it appears in the text. The virtual pagination program permits movement forward and backward in the database, emulating the physical interaction of reader and book. Essentially, the student is flipping through the pages, returning to the index, looking something else up, in other words interacting with the virtual text as he or she would with an actual book. The program package sets the text in permanent order, ascribing a page number to a body of text, regardless of the user's screen size, browser type or font. This allows for easy referencing and cross-referencing, sensible bibliographical annotation (one is never told that the citation occurs somewhere in the fifty page document at the address given) and greatly simplifies on-line class discussion. An instructor can refer the class to page 13 of last week's lecture notes, and be certain that all the students will be reviewing the same 60 lines of text. All the lectures and much of the journal material associated with these on-line courses is distributed via this system, thus no one is ever forced to download more than a page of text at a time.

The program package also contains an on-line editing tool developed by Dr. Beeler. This permits course developers to do touch up editing on-line, to add images if they like, or rewrite segments of their text. This tool is not meant for major re-writing. It opens each paragraph of any given page in an HTML form TEXTAREA, and permits on-line manipulation of the text. The re-written text is saved, preserving the original and displayed in final HTML format to the instructor, who can then choose to further edit the page or not. At the moment, the right to replace the old text with the newly edited version is restricted to the system administrator, however, eventually we may be forced to trust others. Beeler has used this on-line editing tool to facilitate long-distance scholarly collaboration in a variety of subjects, and we foresee that it will be a useful addition to the Creative Writing course - allowing on-line editing and annotation, simulating a workshop environment.

Recognizing the human as well as the technical limitations, we have attempted to make our course production tools as user friendly as possible. Lynda Williams, another member of our team is currently working on a browser interface for customizing communications software. The on-line editing is also browser based. The preprocessor and the search engine both work on UNIX systems and neither requires command line arguments.

In January, our four on-line courses will go public. They are not being offered simultaneously as live courses, so we anticipate substantial enrollment. Being a small northern regional university, we are constantly aware, when building distance education courses, of the need to be inclusive. I believe that we have done this to the best of our abilities. Granted, we still require that our students have or have access to a computer, a modem and an Internet connection, but these things are becoming surprisingly common in northern B.C. where the ability to communicate with a community of people with similar interests is something no one takes for granted. Bringing quality, pertinent, senior level education to all parts of the region is part of the mandate of the school. This first trial run features four disparate English courses (English simply because at UNBC it seems the English Programme does a good part of the Internet research and development work). Other programmes have expressed an interest in developing on-line courses according to our model. Science courses would certainly present new and exciting challenges. The tools to develop these future courses are in place and will shortly be released for public use in the spirit of academic sharing.

Bringing Web-based distance education courses to the low-tech north will offer new options to a population used to only one: move away. The assumption that intellectual stimulation and academic achievement are things that only people living in the south desire is clearly wrong. The frontier spirit has always embodied innovation, simulation, and an ability to make the best of less than top quality resources. Our courses are designed as prototypes, intended to bring quality higher level education to the people of the northern B.C. region without taxing their resources or asking them to relocate. We are accommodating the technical needs of the people of the region by limiting the time they have to spend on-line, incorporating graphics so as not to preclude the participation of users with low or no graphics capabilities, and parceling data in small portions to avoid long download times. We are hoping to accommodate their academic needs by developing a virtual academic community and contextualizing it within a greater social and political milieu. Distance education in the north cannot rely on a pre-existing academic network, it must build not only courses, but a framework for academic life, and if our efforts are not perfect the first time around, we can take heart that the frontier spirit, along with its penchant for innovation, is known for resilience and perseverance.

Acknowledgments: Funding for this project was provided by The Open University Planning Council, The Innovations Fund of British Columbia and the University of Northern British Columbia. Support, encouragement, funding and lab space provided by Dennis Macknac and the Regional Operations Department at UNBC. Technical support, programming instruction and optimism generously granted by Dr. Stan Beeler. General guidance and pedagogical advice provided by Dr. David Dowling and all the faculty and students involved directly and indirectly in the project.

Works Cited

Beeler, Karin. English 430/630 - Canadian Literature. Internet. 8 Sept. 1996. http://donne.fac.unbc.edu

Dowling, David. English 440/640 - Postcolonial Literature. Internet. 8 Sept. 1996.

Gilbert, Kathleen. "How (or Whether) to Pace a WWW-Based Course." E-mail to WWWDEV. 18 June 1996.

Horne, Dee. English 420/620 - First Nations Literature. Internet. 8 Sept. 1996. http://donne.fac.unbc.edu

Jaeger, George. "Anyone Doing Innovative Communication in Web-Based Instruction." E-mail to WWWDEV. 22 June 1996.

Johnson, Lynda A. Art 101. Internet. 9 Sept. 1996. http://thor.cc.suu.edu/WebPages/MuseumGaller/Art101

Leckie, Ross. English 470-670 - Creative Writing. Internet. 8 Sept. 1996. http://donne.fac.unbc.edu

Basia Siedlecki
Graduate Student / Courseware Developer
University of Northern British Columbia
2036 Kenworth Rd. East
Prince George
B.C. V2K 4L8

BIO: I am currently a Graduate Student in Interdisiplinary Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. I have been producing pedagogical material for the Internet for several years. Some of the sites I have developed or have been a part of developing can be accessed at:

NOTE: Updates, changes, and revisions to this paper may be found at: http://donne.fac.unbc.edu/basia/naweb.html

Basia Siedlecki 1996. The author assigns to the University of New Brunswick and other educational and non-profit institutions a non exclusive license to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author grants a non-exclusive license to the University of New Brunswick to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers, and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

N.A.WEB 96 - The Second International North America World Wide Web Conference http://www.unb.ca/web/wwwdev/ University of New Brunswick.