WHAT: Lyceum is a visual and sound software package for lecturers teaching online. WHY: tudents worldwide are able to tune in at any time, writes Steven Albert.
HOW: The word lyceum conjures up images of ballrooms, concert halls and lecture theatres. For Open University business students, however, the Lyceum is a series of online tutorial rooms where they can discuss their course work with lecturers.
The tutorials use synchronised voice and visual conference software to teach groups of about 12 students on the business school's managing knowledge course.
The package works in two ways. First, it provides online voice conferencing. Students and tutors, using the internet, can speak in groups of any size. Second, it provides platforms to display visual information synchronously.
The visual tools provided include a whiteboard that functions like any normal whiteboard used at meetings; a "concept mapper", which allows students and tutors to map out concepts that develop during tutorials and share these with the group; and a "screen-grabber", which allows participants to "grab" a page from their computer screen, be it from the web, from their word processor or from any where else, and "send it" to the group as a whole.
These tools combine to form the tutorial "space", which can be shared by students and tutors anywhere in the world, at the same time, online.
The voice aspect of Lyceum was successfully tested with the Centre for Modern Languages at the Open University this summer. The technology provided obvious advantages for students who were learning languages at a distance from their peers. How it might be developed and augmented with other on-screen tools, and how it would best be applied to other courses, was still an issue.
Lyceum was first used in December last year. In the first stage it is expected to involve some 75 associate lecturers and 850 students logging on to internet tutorials covering subjects such as sense-making and intellectual capital reports.
The links between Lyceum and the particulars of the course are key to its development.
Craig Rodine, Lyceum project leader, believes this is central. "We are very interested in participatory design. We wait for faculty to self-select, to come forward with interesting ideas and then develop visual components."
"In the case of the business school's managing knowledge course, the deployment of the technology and the subject matter of the course reflect each other. For us it has been an organisational learning exercise and an application of knowledge management in itself."
Lyceum is the product of an unprecedented collaboration between academic course designers and technologists - these included the Open University Business School, the Academic Computer Services and the Knowledge Management Institute.
Each has tried to design something that, as Mr Rodine says, "further extends the qualities of the OU distance learning into the online world".
Indeed, Lyceum, the brainchild of Mark Eisenstadt, director of KMI, has at its roots the OU's supported distance learning experience. "What we wanted to do was to capture the best of OU tuition at a distance with good audio and video over the net," says Mr Eisenstadt.
Paul Quintas, professor of knowledge management at the OUBS and chair of the managing knowledge course team, soon recognised the applicability of Lyceum to his course. He believes that for this course the medium becomes the message.
"One of the cornerstones of managing knowledge is communication, and Lyceum is a new communication form useful for experimentation in knowledge sharing," says Professor Quintas.
"I saw that there was potential for Lyceum to create an online working environment where students and tutors can work together."
Siobhan Soraghan, an associate lecturer for the course, has experienced Lyceum while leading an online tutorial.
She believes this kind of teaching has the potential to improve the quality of group interaction and learning. "It's an exciting way to hold tutorials because I think that there is a much more measured and paced interaction," she says.
"Lyceum forces people to listen and reflect. In normal spontaneous conversation people tend to leap in whenever they can without necessarily thinking about what they are going to say. My experience with using Lyceum as a tutoring tool has shown that this doesn't happen as frequently.
"It affects how a group communicates and what interests me is what that will do to the quality of the students' thinking and the quality of the tutor-student dialogue."
Most of the tutors who will be using Lyceum have had very little experience with online tutoring. This has implications for the content of the tutorials as designed by the course team.
Simon Buckingham Shum, lecturer in knowledge media and the liaising academic between the Lyceum developers and the course team responsible for content, has been addressing this very issue.
"I like to ask the question: what does it mean to be literate with Lyceum - to read, discuss and write in this new medium?
"Because we have many inexperienced tutors, our job has been to create 'process and representational structures' around which tutors can improvise as they grow in confidence. We provide an online tutorial script to help them manage breakout and plenary discussions.
"Tutors download reusable resources for the visual tools that help them lead focused, well-structured discussions around specific course concepts. In time, we anticipate that a digital library of concept maps and annotatable whiteboards will emerge as tutors publish tried and tested material in their online discussion conferences."
Ms Soraghan likes to use the analogy of a car when discussing the experience she and her students will have.
"First, we will have to make sure that the car works. Does everyone have a computer and connection that can run Lyceum?" she says. "Second, we will have to learn how to drive. Can we all use the tools Lyceum offers? Finally, we will need to drive in the right direction. Are we getting benefit from interacting as a group online more than perhaps on asynchronous email or even in a normal conversation?"
Which brings up the absolute quintessential point about Lyceum and the busy OUBS student body: users will not have to drive, take a train or fly to these tutorials - they will simply log on.