Tricks & Traps: Lessons the Microsoft Online Institute has Learned


Ben Watson (scholars.com)
Microsoft Online Institute


ABSTRACT

Over one year old now the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI) has trained thousands of students through its online classrooms. Several million dollars later however, it has not been easy - from using features that were thought to be useful but students didn't to new computer-mediated communication problems to issues of support and developing web-based courseware. At the same time MOLI has moved from the Microsoft Network to the Internet (http://moli.microsoft.com) presenting a new set of challenges! Find out what the initial conception of MOLI was and see the evolution of MOLI over the past 12 months through the eyes of one Online Classroom Provider. Tricks & traps issues such as end user configuration, bandwidth, communication, support principles, design and implementation are discussed.

Keywords: online training; Microsoft Online Institute; MOLI; scholars.com; HTML; courseware; courses


Disclaimer: This paper represents the views of Ben Watson not those of Microsoft or the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI). Ben works for scholars.com, an approved Online Classroom Provider for MOLI. Comments can be sent to ben@scholars.com.

Prologue
Warning: no fancy graphics, whizbang animation or the like. Just the casual recollections of what I have experienced by being part of the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI) . I first became involved almost two years ago when MOLI was code-named Khyron. When MOLI went live on the Microsoft Network September 1st, 1995 I started my own company (scholars.com) and became an approved Online Classroom Provider, determined to show people how MOLI could be used for effective online training.

I can be scholarly and technical with the best of them but since this is not an academic paper and plus you are spending valuable time reading this I have omitted the traditional 'as XYZ mentioned in his zzz paper' or terms like 'asynchronous learning'; most of us here know the lingo and if you don't then do not worry about it, the paper will probably make more sense to you <grin>. Plus I was told to keep this short (whoops - broke a rule already).

Before I get into what I have learned from online training let me first say something that may very well puzzle you: I do not believe that the Internet should be used to deliver courseware. Now before you start to mutter look at what I said, 'courseware', not courses.

Let me explain - I strongly believe the biggest benefit of using the Internet is its potential to reach a vast audience, not to deliver the courseware but to support the students taking courses. I believe in people learning off-line and getting help as they need it online. To me, this is the essence of online learning. I have seen so many companies and institutions feel that by simply putting their courses into an HTML-format and tossing them up online that they now offer online learning. It reminds me of when CDs were beginning to become popular and publishers started to dump tons of programs onto a CD and sell it a 'collection of xxx' CD. Hence the term shovelware.

CD-ROM drives are everywhere, rarely is a computer sold nowadays without one and yet so many people think that stuffing online courseware down through a 28.8 modem pipe is better than putting the same content on a CD with four times the transfer rate. I am not saying do not develop HTML-based courseware, simply realize that the current delivery speed of the average computer using a modem is so low that you will not be able to do audio, high-quality graphics or video-conferencing right now. It is a question of doing it well or not doing it at all online - students will not be forgiving simply because they are taking a course online, in fact the exact opposite. They have paid money to take the course and expect a quality product.

I think we would all agree that in the not so distant future that bandwidth will not be as big of a problem as it is now. People should develop multimedia courseware in HTML, burn it onto a CD, include a web browser on it, and then when a student enrolls, ship it via overnight courier to anywhere in the world. For a cost of $20 ($3 for the CD and $17 for the courier) your students can now access your courseware the way you designed it, quickly and with multimedia. You can take the same courseware, put it up on your web site and say that if the student has (for example) an ISDN or higher speed connection then they can view the courseware online and save xx number of dollars (since you would be saving on shipping etc.). But based on my experience I will say that over 90% of people will prefer to view the courseware off a CD rather than online. Why?
- no connection time charges (the hidden cost of online viewing!) which would easily add $1 per hour of connection time
- the CD becomes a reference CD once the course is done, with online courseware you have nothing once the course is done
- ease of installation, everyone knows how to insert a CD and with Windows 95 for example a simple autorun.inf file will automatically run your installation program (the file is ignored by other operating systems)
- now you can include audio & video clips, high-quality graphics etc.
- when bandwidth increases then you can transfer your courses onto a web server

So where the does the online part fit in? I have always felt that the fundamental essence of learning was to have access to experience and knowledge. Once you have grasped the fundamentals your next level of learning occurs when you are able to discuss it with others, blending their views with your own to produce a stronger understanding. When I attended university I picked courses based on the instructor and how good she or he was. With online learning it is paramount that the online time be spent constructively, not 'OK, does anyone have any questions on chapter 11' but 'now that you have all read chapter 11 lets discuss xxxx'. The old passive versus active learning debate. I think that online courses offer the potential of once again having more direct access to your instructor.

At scholars.com we use Microsoft approved multimedia courseware on CD and supplement that with support using:
- Learning Advisors online 12 hours a day continuously monitoring the chats and answering students' email
- course bulletin boards
- enhanced email using fonts, colors and graphics.
- lots of supplemental materials that expand on the course content
- exam preparation software (500 questions based on the exam)

At the same time we are more proactive: we send out daily questions and helpdesk scenarios for students to solve along with info email expanding on topics covered in the course. We offer continuous enrollment so that students can start any time and we ship out their student kits by overnight courier (if you just paid US$695 for a course wouldn't you want to get something tangible?). Each course has a maximum duration of 12 weeks with a course usually having 100 hours of course work to do.

Pontificating over, now back to our regularly scheduled broadcast ...

My first nugget of information as a bribe to keep you reading:
I was recently reading a Microsoft study on using color in HTML documents. It was about 30 pages long and went on and on about colors wheels, impact of primary colors (soothing blue versus hostile red etc.) but it could all be boiled down to a few points:
- never use a gray background for documents, it strains the eyes and makes it look 'old', use white instead as it is 'crisper' and not as intrusive.
- most people have 256K SVGA video cards so there is little use in creating 16.7 million 24bit color graphics. Stick to the basic 256 or 16 color wheel and you will be safe.
- do not use green in your documents if people may be printing them out. Green does not print on most printers.
- blue is always a good choice. Red distracts so use it sparingly. Avoid the use of more than 3-5 text colors.

There you go, four points I wish I had known when I started doing online courses. Of course, green is my favorite color so guess who had green littered throughout his HTML documents <grin>.

Introduction
With so much hype regarding the Internet especially with online courses we often overlook the fact that we have a chance to change the way we learn. Many institutions are putting their courses up online and not taking advantage of what this new medium offers us. Having been involved with the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI) for over two years now and running my own company that offers courses through MOLI my livelihood depends on making sure that our courses are the best possible. As a private company I am also lucky to not be bound by academic red tape and thus can think outside of the 'box'.

I. Some General Principles
So much can be said about online learning, what to do, what not to do, etc. Here are some general thoughts:

"Being slow is death"

Speed, speed, speed - online learners can never have enough of it and they never will. Though many people (including Bill Gates) think that in the near term bandwidth will not be a problem I can tell you right now that big pipes to the home will not be happening any time soon. Modems are pretty much maxed out at 28.8 and the 33.3+ modems are dependent on 'clean' (no static) telephone lines. Worse yet, outside North America connection speeds are slower. There is nothing worse than waiting for graphics to appear on a web page or any type of slow response.

"Just do it"
Something that many corporations and institutions are loathe to do but I always suggest that if you are thinking of offering online training you should sit down and roughly map out your agenda, objectives, methodology, etc. More important is that you do it: start with one course, get it up online and learn from the results. With the online world, the winners will be those who started in the first wave. Each institution will experience its own unique problems - problems that you will not be able to forecast. As you read through this document you will see just how many changes we had to make over time. These changes came as a result of our experiences with our way of doing online training.

"The customer is #1"
With traditional learning if a student is unhappy the most that will happen is that he or she will complain to a few friends, not recommend the course and not take course from that professor again. In the online world (bad) news travels much quicker and tends to hang around for a lot longer. This makes customer satisfaction even more important. With the 'remoteness' of online learning it is hard to tell whether a student is happy or growing more frustrated. Though many online courses offer an evaluation form at the end of the course, by then it is too late. Often an eval form is a 'we hope to learn from our mistakes so that the next student doesn't have to go through what you did'. If a student is unhappy with your online course potentially the whole Internet community may hear about it - all it takes is a posting to one of the more popular Internet newsgroups.

II. Chats - great in theory but …
Have you ever attended an online chat with 10 students? Works pretty good doesn't it. How about with 30 students? Things tend to get rowdy, the conversation quickly gets out of sync, etc. And with 50 students? Forget it.

When we started offering our online courses I thought great - once or twice a week we will have a one hour chat so that students, having covered that week's topic, could get together with their Learning Advisor (which is what we call our online instructors) and work out any problems that they were having. Imagine being able to get some one-on-one quality time with your instructor! Great in theory but in reality we encountered several problems; the main one was low attendance - not everyone could attend the chat at a certain time.

Fixed times for chats are a throwback to the instructor-led , classroom-based way of learning. A bit harsh perhaps but true nonetheless. One of the supposed benefits of online learning is its flexibility - the course is learner-driven, self-paced with a certain time frame (x number of weeks) etc. So why are we forcing students to attend a chat at fixed times?

What about time zones? If you are truly offering courses online then you will have students from around the world and soon you will find out that 7pm EST is 7pm in Hong Kong! 8pm EST your time may be convenient to you but what about people on the west coast, 8pm is 4pm their time and more than likely they will still be at work (assuming that your courses are attracting non-University type clients).

The bigger the chats are the sooner you realize that you as the instructor has no power. You cannot fix a steely eye on the rowdy student and make them quiet down. Even worse trying to do so will just make the issue worse. In a chat you may have the ability to kick people off and perhaps to 'whisper' to them (i.e. send a message only visible to you and the receiver). Both are ineffective and not conductive to having a good session.

OK, so what is the solution? The ideal solution is to have your chats live for xx hours every day, making sure that it is staffed by instructors. This is the approach we have taken at scholars.com, our chats are live 12 hours every day, 7 days a week with 3-5 Learning Advisors online at any one time. This way students can get help as they need it, not when you want to offer it. At the same time Learning Advisors are working answering student email etc. With our way of learning our Learning Advisors can even work from home.

You can also do several other things to maximize the benefits of a chat. First, do not start a chat with open ended questions. Something like "do you have any questions" means that you have now given up the speaker's gavel to anyone who wants it (and good luck getting it back). Take advantage of what a chat can offer you as an instructor - run a chat by constantly asking questions to the students, being active not passive. Since a chat is a real-time method of communication do not open yourself up to questions that you may not be able to answer right away. If you do get a question that you cannot answer quickly do not sit there thinking about it - invoke the 3 minute rule, if you cannot type something within three minutes then say that you will research it and email the answer to the student and if necessary post it on the BBS, newsgroup, web site, whatever. There is nothing worse than being in a chat and nothing is happening. Silence may be golden but in a chat it can be deafening. I as a student am not going to give up an hour of my time to attend a chat so that I can stare at a blank screen.

By taking the initiative and asking questions you are able to control the flow of the chat. Before the chat type up a document with questions and answers. During the chat cut & paste a question into the chat, listen to the response, give encouragement etc. and then cut & paste your answer to the question. This way you can ask solid questions and give good answers quickly, saving on wear and tear on your fingers plus your students will think of you as a demigod for responding do quickly.

At the end of the chat save a transcript of it and post it to your web site or BBS so that students who missed it can read over it later plus it makes a good source of information to students later as they review. Email to all students a document outlining how chats work, chat etiquette, basic rules (no swearing, wait until other people are finished etc.). As you do more chats and encounter the same problems over and over again you can devise a solution and put it into your Frequently Asked Questions & Answers on Chats document.

For example, in chat how do you know when a person is finished? I was initially taught that in creating a long answer as soon as I finish typing one sentence to send it and start typing the second sentence. The premise being that a person would rather read once sentence at a time rather than waiting 4 minutes as you hammer out five sentences (plus the retention rate is higher if you deliver the information in chunks). That worked well until my first chat - I was typing my second sentence (having sent my first one) of a five sentence answer when everyone starting typing and criticizing my 'one sentence answer'. OK, I quickly learned to send one sentence at a time ending each one with three periods … indicating that there was more to come. I put this into our FAQ on Chats document and the problem was solved for other students as well.

I was in private chat once with people from Microsoft and every so often they would be ending their responses with ga. Not wanting to display my ignorance I assumed that ga was either someone's initials or some sort of inside joke (like gag). It turns out that ga stands for go ahead, indicating that the person is finished. If it is not obvious to me and I am an online instructor then I think we can assume that a student may also have a hard understanding it. Besides, the three dots … is a lot more obvious than ga.

III. Emoticons
Please, never use emoticons (smileys) in any type of online communication (chat, email etc.) unless it's meaning is really obvious. Your students will never tell you but unless they are propeller heads from Computer Science they will not understand what you are saying. Worse yet, they will not tell you that they do not understand and their frustration level will start to build. ROTFL may mean Rolling On The Floor Laughing to you but not to the average student. Tilting your head sideways to figure out an emoticon is fun the first few times but it wears off quickly.

The solution? Put the emotion or action inside < > brackets. When you want to smile type <grin> or <laughing> or whatever. Much easier to understand and anyone can do it. MUDS and all the rest I am equally not happy with, you can do a lot more with a web browser and a well laid out web site. VRML goes the same way - it looks good but only if you are running at high bandwidth. I'll stress it again - the benefit of online learning is access to the instructor, not whiz bang graphics. The first few times a student goes into a MOO, MUD or VRML world he will be impressed but after that the novelty wears off quickly. Especially with graphical environments the time needed to load the graphics once the student knows where he wants to go can cause overwhelming frustration.

IV. The Course Toolbox
Assuming that you have great courseware (the backbone of any good online course) what else can you add? Obviously the support is what separates an online course from reading an equivalent book but how do you do it. Your goal should be to provide the core content, surround it with as many supplemental resources as possible and make the instructor(s) continuously available to offer help. I have read many books and papers where I have come across an interesting point but no further information was available. Haven't you read something where it says "see Tom Burke's xyz paper p.50-72" and you really wished you could read that paper. With online training you can build in these types of hot links. If a student doesn't care to click on the link then fine, it was put there in case they were interested. In traditional publishing you are confined by cost and the maximum number of pages - online you can offer structured content but with links to outside resources. I am member of the school of thought that if someone is interested in a topic they tend to retain it better plus if a hot link can answer their question then they will not have to ask the instructor (or if they do at least they will be better informed). Let the student decide what to read.

The basic course toolbox should be:
Chats - as mentioned before make them active xx hours a day. You will lose that ability to create a team-learning, group atmosphere but in return you create a more one-to-one relationship. In a chat students want to talk to you the instructor not necessarily 30 other students all at the same time. A compromise would be to also create a Student Union chat which would be live all the time but not staffed. Students could congregate there and talk - even better, say that you as the instructor will be there every 'Thursday & Sat.' from '9am-10am & 9pm-10pm'. This would encourage students to attend at those times but removes the pressure to learn.

Another suggestion would be to have an Auditorium room and have one general topic each week (with invited guests, a current topic, etc.). Be sure to offer it at least twice that day (once in the day and once at night) and archive the topic. This way you could invite a lecturer to talk but he himself would not attend 'physically'. This would done by having a moderated chat using three individual chats:
- Ask Questions Here: you go to this chat to ask questions which are then reviewed by the host/moderator and are cut & pasted into the 'Listen to Conference' chat so that the speaker can answer it there. This approach cuts down on the confusing array of questions and answers and brings structure to the chat.
- Listen to Conference: students use this chat to see the questions that have been asked (posted by the moderator from the Ask Questions Here chat) and the corresponding answer from the speaker.
- Private Chat: between the lecturer and the hosts, this chat is set up as a password protected and/or private chat so that students do not even see it.

Newsgroups - the equivalent of a Bulletin Board, newsgroups are an excellent to add the 'community' aspect for online (asynchronous) learning especially if you have structured your chats to be continuously active. You would be wise to post weekly a 'Newsgroup Etiquette' document that clearly lays out the rules. I prefer newsgroups over mailing lists as I can read only what I want to unlike a mailing list where if it is active I tend to get overwhelmed with email. A mailing list is a poor man's newsgroup.

Enhanced Email - the basic courier/typewriter font email is slowly evolving into email that can have different fonts, sizes, colors and graphics. Known as MIME and RTF (Rich Text Format) this type of email can have a dramatic impact on your email correspondence to students. Now you can use color to emphasize points, added a scanned image of yourself, include a diagram etc. Any big graphics can be put onto your web server and have a URL to it in your email message (remember most of your students will be using modems). Just make sure that your students are using a MIME/RTF compliant email reader . Since currently 50% of our students cannot read our MIME/RTF email we have designed our email using MIME/RTF but have also used the more traditional hyphens and dashes to emphasize the contents. When we send out the email we have used Microsoft Exchange to set the students' email address properties to either send in RTF format or not. If not, then all the extra formatting codes get stripped out and the student still has the *** and --- for emphasis. At scholars.com over 80% of our course support is done through email and we have found that multimedia email makes a big difference, you just have to be careful that the email message size does not get too big.

Online Resources - similar to placing URL links in the documents for additional information you can create a great online resource of links to related areas of information. If you are using a web management program like FrontPage then you use its autoverify ability to check for dead links.

V. Frames
Don't use frames. I know - they are appealing and seem to jazz up a site but having concluded a three month test of having a framed site versus an unframed one I can easily say that frames cause more problems than most people realize.

The number one problem with using frames is Search Engines. Internet search engines (web crawlers, spiders, etc.) crawl across the web indexing web pages, unfortunately they do not index frames. So if someone uses a search engine, clicks a resulting link to one of your web pages all that person will see is the individual web page - with no frames. As most frames are used for navigation imagine if a person saw your web pages unframed. More than likely they will not be able to visit other parts of your site since the navigation frames will be missing.

So who cares about search engines? You do. You can place all the print ads and web banners you want but over 50% of your web visits will come from a search engine. With all the advertising scholars.com does, still over 50% of visits come from search engines. Here's another tip regarding search engines, use descriptive page headers for your web pages. These headers appear in the top bar of the web browsers and are indexed by the search engines. If your initial web page has a header of 'Welcome to our site' instead of 'Online certification training with scholars.com' then your search engines listings will not be as effective. Many times I have visited web sites whose page headers still say 'Enter Title Here'.

Another hint on search engines? Especially with online training sites you probably do not want all your web pages indexed, especially those pages hat may be always changing ('What's New', your own index pages, staging areas...) so you can use a robots.txt file to specify what areas and files the engines cannot index. We found out about this the hard way - we did a makeover of our web site, organizing everything into directories etc. Everything looks great but three months later we are still getting hits from outdated indexes of our web site. Since you cannot force a search engine to reindex your site you have to wait until the search engines make it back on their own.

So when are frames useful? Large sites with a lot of information can benefit from navigational frames. If your site has a 'library' of information then frames can be very useful. Commercial web sites like frames since they can be used for banner ads. Now that borderless frames are becoming more popular it may become easier to implement frames that are not so intrusive.

VI. Student Kits
As mentioned earlier when a student signs up for one of our courses we send out their student kit by overnight courier. One of the main reasons why we send out a student kit is that we believe that when you sign up for an online course (paying US$695 or more) you should receive something tangible. This works well for us since all of our courseware is on CDs so we have to ship them something anyway. For a few more dollars we can add 'stuff' to the kit. We add supplemental course materials like a technical CD from Microsoft, a 2-user version of Microsoft BackOffice, etc. More importantly we include more personal items like a Microsoft Online Institute t-shirt, a brochure on our city (Fredericton, NB), a Fredericton pin and a letter signed by one of the course's Senior Learning Advisors. This way when they sign up they get 'stuff' in return. It's strange - throw in a $5 T-shirt and a person feels that they have gotten their money's worth for US$695. Plus you are building goodwill in case something goes wrong in the future. I cannot imagine signing up for a course, paying big bucks and being told that I can now access the course online. Ship them their stuff by overnight courier and it seems to validate the whole online learning process.

Another example: on our courseware CDs we have thirty page student manual as a Word document which summarized each unit on one page and had another blank page for notes on that unit. Originally we told students that if they wanted a manual for the course they could print the Word file. It didn't work - everyone kept asking for a manual anyway - they didn't want to bunch of unbound papers. So we printed out the manual, put a nice cover on it and had it bound which we now include in our student kits. Students apparently like to go through the multimedia CDs and have the student manual open beside them to take notes. Plus now they have more 'stuff'.

VII. Web site design & maintenance
If you are maintaining a web site you definitely want to get a good web management program, one that will check for dead links. I like Microsoft FrontPage for this ability alone plus it has a good graphical outline of the web site. At $150 its a great deal. At the same time pick up a good monitoring tool. We use IIS Assistant which is designed to work with Microsoft's Internet Information Server. This tool allows us to see what sites are referring people to us, what web browsers are being used, which pages are read, etc. For example if a person clicks on a link on another web site that leads to our site this is recorded as a referral. Naturally a lot of referrals are going to be from search engine results. Since the Internet is literally a web of links it is handy to know what other web sites are pointing traffic to your web. If you use web banner ads this is a good way to track how effective they are. You can also see what hours of the day generate the most traffic which is a good indication of when your students will be active. Knowing what pages are frequently read helps you to optimize your web site. For example, on our site we have a Frequently Asked Questions document which we listed on our main navigation bar as FAQ. Other items on the nav bar were being read twice as often as the FAQ. By changing the wording from FAQ to Questions? the reading rate then equaled the others.

VIII. Think Big
One thing to always keep in the back of your mind as you create online courses is how well your system will scale, i.e. handle more students. When scholars.com started to offer courses our administrative systems worked well but when we will started to handle several hundred students our systems had to be overhauled. Some examples are:

within the server - we were using a 486 as our server with 32MB RAM. As things started to get busy (especially the email we were sending and receiving) we found that the ISA network card we were using to connect to the Internet through a router was becoming a bottleneck. The solution was to add a PCI network card which has a higher throughput. Unfortunately our computer did not have any PCI slots. Eventually we upgraded to a dual Pentium (with the second cpu slot initially empty) with several PCI slots and given the low price of RAM we boosted the server to 132MB RAM. So buy a god server that can be easily expanded.

shipping - we ship our student kits by overnight courier worldwide. Initially we did up our own shipping forms but eventually we had to use the shipping software that FedEx and Purolator now offer free of charge to their customers. Had we used their software in the beginning it would have saved us the trouble of overhauling how we do the shipping.

the process of enrollment - our enrollment system always seems to be getting updated but at the beginning you could just walk around and tell everyone that a new student had enrolled but that became impossible later. Our Learning Advisors also work from their homes 2-3 days a week monitoring the chats and answering email over a modem connection so it became important to somehow get current events out to those working at home. Initially we did this through email but as we hired more staff we found that they needed to know the old information as well. We have now created what Microsoft Exchange (our mail system) calls a public folder where we can post items to this folder (which functions as a bulletin board). Those with the proper access can read and/or post to this folder. Unlike a newsgroup we have a lot more control over this type of folder. Now when we hire someone new we can get them to go through the 'folder' to catch up on recent developments. Since Microsoft Exchange is accessible from the Internet our Learning Advisors do not have to worry about being out of the loop.

Essentially what I am trying to stress is that as you create your 'system' always ask yourself if it can handle 10, 100 or 1000 students. By handle I mean that if you can throw more people or hardware at the system to handle increased enrollments then your system is scaleable. If you have over 10,000 enrollments then you will have the money to solve it anyway you want <grin>.

IX. Testing
With the type of training we do we are very lucky as it is ideally situated for online training. Since it is technical training our courses are generally non-interpretative, unlike, for example, a course on Shakespeare which is more interpretative and where you would acquire additional knowledge by discussing the course with fellow students.

Our courses prepare students to write the related Microsoft certification exam (cost: US$100) at the nearest Sylvan Prometric testing centre. Sylvan does testing for numerous companies and institutions and since their locations are world-wide we know that our students will be able to take the exam. This provides a method of validation at the end of the course - if they pass the exam we have done our job. This is the same exam that everyone writes, no matter if they prepared by taking an instructor-led course, self-study or online. By using Sylvan we do not have to worry about proctoring exams, security etc. (Sylvan requires 2 pieces of signed ID, one with a picture). Since the testing infrastructure already in place this helps to lower our costs. We know our online training is working if students are passing their certification exams.

The courseware we use has end of unit computerized tests (randomized questions etc.) which are then recorded to a file on the student's hard drive. We encourage students to email us the file each time they complete a unit test by offering them the guarantee that if they acheive 85% or higher on each unit test and do not pass their certification exam that we will reimburse for the cost of their rewrite (US$100). This ensures that we are able to measure a student's progress through the course.

X. End User Platform
One of the issues we had to deal with was who are our target market was and what hardware/operating system would they be using. This is incredibly important to know for your end platform determines what you can do:
- will they have a multimedia computer?
- A CD-ROM drive?
- What operating system?

At scholars.com we have defined our minimal end user platform as:
- 486 or higher
- 8 megs RAM
- CD-ROM
- optional soundcard
- 256K SVGA video card running at 640x480 resolution
- Windows 95

Notice that we selected Windows 95 as our preferred operating system. Besides being a Microsoft product <smile> Windows 95 has one of the largest installed bases in the world (over 80% of IBM-compatible computers being sold today come with Windows 95). You may be thinking that the OS doesn't matter if your students are using a web browser but both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer have versions with different features depending on whether it is running on Windows 3.1, Windows NT, Windows 95 or Unix (whoops - I forgot to mention the Mac). Internet Explorer is also free which is appealing.

Personally I think that since most online students will be using their own computers at home it is a safe assumption that Windows 95 will be common. Another benefit of using Windows 95 is that it is easy to use and you do not want to spend your instructor's time having to answer technical OS questions. One hidden benefit of using Windows 95 is that you can create an autorun.inf file on a CD which will cause an installation program to run automatically if the software has not yet been installed. Simply pop in a CD and up comes the install program - removing one of the biggest barriers new students face.

The future
Two things I am looking forward to is style sheets and Microsoft's 'Normandy'. Style sheets, an Internet HTML standard supported by Internet Explorer and soon by Netscape Navigator, allow exact placement of different fonts etc. These style sheets will free everyone from the current rigors of HTML graphic design.

Normandy is Microsoft's codename for a suite of products for building an online community (optimized for high volume). The suite includes chat, personalization and newsgroup servers (the technology has been in use for a while at www.msn.com and www.msnbc.com) . Obviously for scholars.com we are looking forward to implementing this technology especially since this is what CompuServe will be using to create their online environments - this is not a beta product. Others may be interested since Microsoft plans on making the technology available free for downloading.

There are also many advancements happening in streaming technology that make audio and video more viable over low bandwidth connections. Shockwave is becoming popular and Microsoft has just released NetShow. Who knows - maybe my views on bandwidth may have to change. With Microsoft's NetMeeting you can do multicast audio conferencing along with interactive whiteboarding (diagramming) and application sharing on Windows 95 computers (plus it's free standalone program).

One interesting thing to watch happen is when a dozen institutions offer the same course online for credit. If I can take a course from the Harvard Business School or XYZ University whom do you think I will select. This is the problem all online course providers are starting to experience (some refer to this as the Second Wave or the 'shakeout' phase). Whereas before we all benefited from our geographical location to attract students, online training knows no such barriers. Since we have just entered this 'second wave' no one quite knows how this will all work out but suffice to say that your online image or brand will become quite important in the near future so plan your branding/marketing campaigns accordingly. I suspect that student testimonials will also play a factor. The quality of the instructor and the support offered to the students will be key in the decision-making process rather than your geographical location.

Conclusion
That's it - shows over <grin>. Hopefully you have benefited from this rambling look at the experiences of scholars.com in the world of online training. At the conference I will be available for any comments or feel free to email your thoughts to ben@scholars.com.

If you are looking for a really good source on web authoring and related technologies be sure to check out Microsoft's Site Builder Workshop site - it is packed full on great articles on what Microsoft has learned including demo areas, samples and graphics. Don't worry - the site is remarkably free of Microsoft bias. Some of my favorite articles include:
Just the Facts #1 -- Advanced Page Layout with Tables and Frames
Decreasing Download Time Through Effective Color Management 
From CD-ROM to Online Publishing: A Hop, Skip, or Plunge?
World Wide Live: Seven Steps to Highly Effective Web Sites
Web Pages: A Programmer's Perspective


BIOGRAPHY:
Ben Watson sits on the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI) Advisory Council and is President & CEO of scholars.com, an online classroom provider for MOLI. Ben has been involved in MOLI since its inception over two years and has extensive experience in developing open learning environments. In addition to being certified on numerous Microsoft products, he is also a Microsoft Internet Specialist and heavily involved in the Microsoft Beta Evaluation Program.


Name: Ben Watson
Title/position: Senior Learning Advisor, scholars.com
University/college/affiliation: Microsoft Online Institute
Postal address:
scholars.com
527 Beaverbrook Court, Suite 506
Fredericton, NB E3B 1X6
Canada
E-mail address: ben@scholars.com
Web address:
scholars.com (http://www.scholars.com)
Microsoft Online Institute (http://moli.microsoft.com)


COPYRIGHT
Ben Watson 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.