MAN-to-MAN conversations link video tutorial experiments

April 11, 1997

High-speed links in Scotland have enabled researchers to develop distributed innovative learning resources over several campuses.

In February, four Scottish universities began an 18-month experiment in infor-mation technology support for shared tutoring. Project MANTCHI (MAN-based Tutoring in Computer-Human Interaction) is funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council under its Use of MANs Initiative, designed to encourage inter-university collaboration through the innovative exploitation of broadband networks.

The Scottish higher education system is now one of the best-served in the world in terms of broadband communications. All the universities in Scotland are linked by four 155 megabit per second Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) and an interconnect. This communications infrastructure underpins SHEFC's broad strategic vision encouraging inter-university collaboration. The MANs use asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology, which offers direct broadband multimedia communication and can also accommodate Internet traffic.

We identified human computer interaction (HCI) as a particularly favourable environment for investigations of tutoring with the MANs, because the central belt of Scotland has a concentration of HCI expertise which profits from close informal ties and geographical proximity. This has given rise to a number of separate university courses in HCI, each of high quality, at a variety of academic levels. Even before the SHEFC initiative, there was already a desire within the HCI community to bring these courses together, to build on this existing quality and to share expertise. The MANTCHI consortium is led by Glasgow Caledonian University, and includes Heriot-Watt University, Napier University and the University of Glasgow. Our approach is resource-based rather than content-based: both the teacher and the technology play supportive roles in the students' development as members of a professional, learning community. "Tutorial", for us, covers every type of interaction between learner and teacher except primary delivery. We want to exploit the commu-nication capabilities of the MANs by giving students easy access, at the time when they need it, to a tutorial resource which is built from the con-tributions of the whole learning community.

MANTCHI provides a testbed for generic tools for distributed tutorial and task-based learning. By using the computer to capture discussions between tutor and students one can make available those fleeting interactions that have in the past only been recorded implicitly in an individual teacher's expertise. Central to the integration of the tools, people and resources of MANTCHI is a Web implementation of the "AnswerGarden" concept. AnswerGarden, developed by Mark Ackerman at MIT in the early 1990s, is a collaborative tool which supports the growth of "organisational memory" by routing questions to experts and storing experts' answers. When the same principles are applied to tutorial questions, online dialogue between student and lecturer can be saved and used to construct a hypermedia web of such communications which can be used by other students. Heriot-Watt researchers, led by Terry Mayes (now head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Innovation at Caledonian), developed AnswerWeb as part of the Interact project, based at Cambridge University's engineering department. AnswerWeb extended the power of an AnswerGarden by integrating simulations into the distributed hypermedia environment.

Interact offered students a number of purpose-written, interactive engineering simulations. In MANTCHI the relevant software to be integrated will be an actual application or a student's prototype, and the response to a query may be the replay of a previously captured videoconference interaction, or an email response (which may itself embed a link to a multimedia object) or even a live videoconference link to an expert tutor during "virtual office hours".

Our first steps in realising this vision have cast a strong light on the interplay between the technical, the organisational and the pedagogical issues. Broadband technology is a moving target; the provision of ATM links does not typically extend to the desktop; the designers of Internet-based videoconferencing systems such as M-Bone and CU-See-Me have assumed different clientele and requirements from those addressed by ATM-mediated conferencing between video suites. These differences, fundamentally technological, have rapidly given rise to institutional structures, career specialisations and policy structures that we must also learn to navigate in our quest to deliver an integrated tutorial service.

It is well known that "development", in which a research result is turned into a robust product, can well take up 90 per cent of an R&D budget. Since MANTCHI aims to set up a collaborative learning environment that can survive and grow after the project ends, there is also considerable work to be done to re-engineer the AnswerWeb software. A "pedagogical baseline" has to be established by studies across the four universities. This work includes a survey of the HCI curriculum, which will form the basis for planning our major joint teaching experiments this autumn; and observational studies of current tutorial practice as a baseline for evaluation of the changes introduced through MANTCHI.

We have started collaborative teaching, with a joint exercise between Caledonian and Heriot-Watt. Students on two courses met initially via a videoconference, and then carried out a collaborative writing exercise in mixed-university teams using BSCW, a web-based groupware system from the German research institute GMD. They produced a critique of BSCW. A further videoconference, to de-brief on the exercise, will be held shortly. Students have been encouraged to seek tutorial guidance online from tutors, and their questions and the tutors' answers will be used to "seed" the AnswerGarden "plots" with questions and answers on evaluation tech-niques and on computer supported collaborative work.

The situation is well summed up by Sandra Foubister, research fellow on the project: "This is an exciting opportunity for us to exploit new technology in the support of overworked lecturers and busy students. Over the four universities there is a lot of valuable expertise in diverse areas of HCI. I am impressed with the enthusiasm that is being shown for overcoming technical teething problems in order to facilitate the sharing and development of novel learning resources."

Julian Newman is reader in computing at Glasgow Caledonian University and operational manager of the MANTCHI project.

The MANTCHI home page is at http://greenock-bank.clyde.net.uk/mantchi/

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