Roger D. Smith
Mystech Associates, Inc.
Traditional education and training programs distribute knowledge in a format that is convenient for the organizers, expecting the students to form his/her life to that mold. This paradigm works well for young adults who can commit themselves to a university environment without having to pursue a career simultaneously, or for large, well funded organizations who can release their people from projects and send them to conferences. Some adjustments have been made to this model in recent years, but this still does not provide the extended access needed to serve the millions of people who could continue their education within a less restrictive structure.
The explosion of the Internet in recent years has created an environment for delivering information and education that has not existed before. As more and more people are connected to this global nervous system, the natural question will be "What is on in cyberspace?" The exchange of mail, news, software, and games is one answer, but there is also an unparalleled opportunity to create educational events with global access. These would not require physical presence at the event as is necessary today, which has serious implications for those who are physically disabled, visually or auditorially impaired, or learning disabled.
This paper will explore the power of Internet-based, professional education. It will describe how Internet conferences are being conducted in the simulation field today through the ELECSIM Conference Series. These have allowed hundreds of people throughout the world to access and discuss the most current topics in simulation without the burden of work interruption, expenses, and the practical limitations of travel. All information is available using common Internet tools like E-Mail, World Wide Web (WWW), and File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Finally, the paper will discuss future plans for these types of conferences and consider some of the long-range implications to professional development and economic expansion.
Traditionally, educated people have left their universities, degree in hand, to enter an industry and begin applying their knowledge. As the years passed their knowledge began to decay, leaving the person ill-prepared to grow and change as the world changed around them. A few of these people have been able to continue updating their skills through night classes, conferences, and symposiums. Unfortunately, the expense and time involved have not made this possible for everyone, resulting in a net loss to the individual, the employer, and the national economy.
The explosion of the electronic Internet has created an environment in which education can be delivered in custom generated packages, rather than large scale, "one size fits all" university classes or conferences. A conference topic no longer needs to draw hundreds of people in order to be economically viable. Neither must it be held annually and planned more than a year in advance. Electronic conferences can deliver high-quality, current research project information to professionals around the world, without the prerequisite travel, expenses, and missed work.
Alexis de Tocqueville expressed the importance of accessible education and the free flow of ideas in his 1835 statement,
"I know of but one single means of increasing the prosperity of a people that is infallible in practice that I believe one can count on in all countries as in all spots. This means is naught else but to increase the ease of communication between men . . . America, which is the country enjoying the greatest sum of prosperity ever accorded a nation, is also the country which, proportional to its age and means, has made the greatest efforts to procure the easy communication I have spoken of. Of all the countries in the world America is the one where the movement of thought and human industry is the most continuous and swift."
In spite of de Tocqueville's observations, training and educational opportunities are an expense which is difficult to maintain at appropriate levels in the current economic environment. Though registration fees for a conference, symposium, or course may be very affordable, associated expenses drive it beyond many training budgets. Attached to each educational event is a whole host of expenses such as travel, missed work, facility fees, and materials, making education a very expensive proposition for an employer. Classes and conferences must also be held in a synchronous manner, demanding the participant's presence at specific times and locations. This adds to the burden of learning and reduces the number of participants regardless of the availability of funding.
Serving education and training to people on their terms is not a new idea. It has been done with correspondence courses, video teleconferencing, and televised programs for years. The world leader in eliminating these types of barriers is the British Open University with their "open campus" concept. Classes are offered via mail, television, cassette tape, video tape, and recent experiments with the Internet. In 1994 they created an experimental Lisp Programming Course on the Internet. Assignments, instructions, tutoring, and the textbook are distributed via E-Mail and anonymous FTP. Material is graded and returned to sixty-six students who are physically located from London to Moscow, Washington D.C. to Singapore. Once this experimental semester is finished they plan to offer fully accredited classes to a world-wide student population.
Projects such as Athena University join in this model, offering an entire Bachelor of Arts curriculum organized, attended, and graded on the Internet. Professors may plan and conduct classes from any location in the world, living where they prefer rather than where the university is located. Many people are familiar with the MBA program at the University of Phoenix. All courses leading up to the degree can be attended via CompuServe on-line service and minimal campus attendance is required to complete the program. America Online is also the host for similar graduate programs in interdisciplinary studies.
All of these ideas are based on the university concept. Internet technology can also be used to host and execute short conferences comparable to those usually held in large hotel conference areas. Though the location may not be as exotic as Orlando or Las Vegas, the ability to attend them is extended to far more people. This means that the ability to service people's educational needs is greater with electronic conferences than with traditional conferences. The comparative level of depth achieved and the long term relationships developed are currently unknown, but data on this can be gathered as we explore the format.
INTERNET BASED CONFERENCING
Anyone with access to the Internet has the potential to participate in world-class professional educational events. In 1994 a few members of the military simulation community set out to create a conference entirely conducted over the Internet. The result, the Electronic Conference on Constructive Training Simulation (ELECSIM), drew 660 participants from 24 countries to study and discuss technical papers on the most actively used training simulation programs (Table I). The authors of the papers were drawn from industry, academia, and government: U.S. Army STRICOM, MITRE, Naval Research Laboratory, CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Oakridge National Laboratory, University of Virginia, University of Central Florida, Mystech Associates, Loral Advanced Distributed Simulation, Visicom Labs, MRJ, and Roland & Associates.
|Table I. 1994 ELECSIM Conference Participants|
The overwhelmingly positive response to the conference must be attributed to many factors. One of the strongest of these was the ability of people to select and attend the conference without having to request support from their employer. People normally isolated from training opportunities were able to benefit from the information provided in the papers and discussions with the authors. Asynchronous, electronic messages are also a great equalizer for opening the discussion floor to all attendees. No longer do we hear exclusively from the loud, quick-to-speak members. Those who are quiet and require more time to formulate their words can be heard with equal clarity. The virtual nature of the event also places those with physical handicaps on completely equal footing with everyone else, blurring the effects of the handicap and the appearance of the speaker.
Another success factor is the incredible excitement being generated about the Internet right now. Everyone wants to be "on-line" to join the "global community", etc. But the first question they are confronted with is, "What is on in cyberspace?" There is a huge audience eager to connect, but few really rich events to participate in. ELECSIM provides simulation professionals with a valuable reason to learn to use the Internet and join the electronic community. It is an educational application of the media as opposed to the entertainment applications proliferating like rabbits.
As with everything new there are skeptics. In organizing the conference we were told by a Vice-President of a large computer professional society, "If people do not come together and meet physically, it is not a bonafide conference, and we are not interested in being involved." This type of attitude can only be changed by creating events in spite of them and illustrating the value of these to the people in the industry. It is the individuals receiving the benefit that will persuade existing organizations that this is a valid form of education.
ELECTRONIC NETWORK ACCESS
An electronic conference can be hosted on any computer attached to the Internet. The cooperation and assistance of the system administrator are essential.
The conference organizer must be familiar with all of these tools at more than the user level of understanding. There are frequent requests for help concerning e-mail usage, library access, mailing lists, and the other tools included in the conference.
The organizer must begin by determining the topic of the conference and soliciting papers to fill the schedule. Though it is common to fill a conference via an industry wide "Call for Papers", this new format of electronic conferencing may scare away potential presenters. We have found that in addition to the call for papers, a select group of people should be personally invited to present papers. Targeting interesting projects in this manner increases the value of the conference to the audience.
Promoting an electronic conference is very similar to traditional conferences. But, in addition to the usual journal announcements organizers should make use of the many electronic avenues available. These include news groups, mailing lists, gopher servers, WWW, and nodes known to be dedicated to the topic of the conference.
ELECSIM'94 was conducted using a mailing list and a "list server". The mailing list was a reflector which redirected all mail that it received to the registered members of the conference. The list server is a piece of software which manages the library of documents that make up the technical material of the conference. This software responds to e-mail requests for the documents by transmitting any document in the library to the requestor via e-mail (Figure 1). This approach provides access to the greatest number of people in the world since e-mail is the lowest common denominator. People who know nothing else about the net understand and use their e-mail.
All conference materials can also be made available via anonymous FTP. This allows anyone on the network to enter the host computer and download files that have been made available to the "anonymous" account. Prepared materials, like the conference instructions and papers, are stored in the anonymous FTP directories in the same manner that they are deposited in the mailing list server directories. The advantage of this method is that it allows users to access the information synchronously and in both ASCII and binary formats. This means that the graphics files and executable programs do not have to be specially encoded for e-mail transfer. The disadvantage is that some manual intervention is required to maintain consistency between this directory and the discussions being exchanged and archived by the e-mail list server. FTP is also not available to as wide of an audience as is e-mail, limiting those that can be served by it.
World Wide Web
The document library can be made available to the World Wide Web (WWW). Programs which browse the Web are sweeping the Internet like a firestorm. Mosaic and Netscape allow users to view word processor quality text and full color graphics. They can navigate the information using a Windows-like button interface, with a minimal amount of command memorization (Figure 2). Though the demands on communications bandwidth are greatly increased, WWW is becoming the face of the Internet. For the first time people can see and feel the network without having to enter the cryptic world of programmers.
Electronic conferences, like electronic communications, will supplement traditional forms of training, not replace them. Just as CNN has not replaced newspapers, and the telephone has not replaced paper mail, there will always be a place for both formats in the world. Obviously all material can not be handled electronically since all people do not have electronic access. With new forms come new limitations. Though cost, travel, and physical access may be removed, the ability to use computers, communications equipment, and the software that drives these have arisen as new barriers.
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Additional information on distance education and the Internet is available on the World Wide Web at:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger D. Smith is Principal Simulation Engineer with Mystech Associates. He is responsible for developing simulations and tools to support the training missions of US and Allied forces around the world. These have included air and ground combat models, intelligence collection and analysis algorithms, after action review systems, and simulation management tools. He created, organized, and chaired the Internet-based ELECSIM conferences.