In the future vocational and further training/education at universities will no longer be seen from or carried out at local or regional level. Course units, project results, reports, theses and dissertations can be made available everywhere. This has lead to new forms of learning and co-operation which have been called “Distance Education” and “Telelearning”. We now have a process of lifelong learning in addition to general schooling. Educational institutes will not only be used on a regional basis, courses will not only be developed for individual locations but will be made available globally via communication networks.
The FernUniversität started the project Virtual University in order to meet these demands. It has been running successfully since the winter semester 1996/97. In 1999 over 100 courses for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the faculties of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Law and Social Studies were offered online.
The Virtual University is a web application based on high performance servers, integrated databases and Java technologies. In order to run the application the user only needs standard software. This makes it easier to transfer the system to several areas in vocational and further training/education (universities, schools, further training institutes).
The software developed in the Virtual University project is currently available under the name Uni Open Platform as Open Source software and can be downloaded free of charge from the CampusSource exchange.
Most of the learning material from our faculty is distributed via communication networks and can be worked on either online or downloaded in modules (individual chapters, course units or complete courses) and worked on offline; new courses are made available every 2 weeks during the semester. The advantage of working online is that students have access to additional offers (e.g. online libraries) and should a student have a question, can contact fellow students or lecturers by e-mail, newsgroup, chat and audio or video conference. However students have to pay a small charge to avail of this online service.
The following tools were developed at our faculty in order to make the online service more flexible for students, to enable a personal view of what’s on offer and to minimize time spent online.
The Offline Navigator was developed at the university in order to minimize online time and the resulting costs. The Offline- Navigator enables course units including the necessary software (plug-ins, viewer, etc.) to be automatically downloaded onto the students PC. The students can then work offline on their courses.
The Offline Navigator works in 4 stages: In the initial stage the Offline Navigator and the database which is integrated into the virtual university determine which courses and required software the student already has on his/her computer. In the second stage students have the possibility to choose the courses/software offline. In the third stage the software is downloaded and in the final stage automatically installed.
The database in use here was developed at the university and is a PostgresSQl-database which can be used as a server for the Offline Navigator as well as for the web based administration of students and courses. It also enables a personalized view of the Virtual University with the aid of the ET-Online Assistant.
The ET-Online Assistant is a tool which was also developed by the Department of Communication Systems.
With the aid of the ET-Online Assistant registered students have their own personalized view of the Virtual University. They can administer courses, relevant events, browse for a personal list of courses and related exercise results as well as set up their own communication environment. To prevent misuse of the system students have to authenticate themselves. The data retrieved from the database is then transmitted encrypted, to the student.The database has been approved by the data security officer at the university.
The learning content publishing system FuXML is used for the authoring, maintenance, production and distribution of learning materials at the FernUniversität Hagen. These learning materials are printed, sent to students and published in HTML format, as CD-ROM or as an online version within the learning environment of the virtual university. One of the greatest added values of the system is the possibility for a modern media university to create and maintain the same content for both issues (print and electronic) in a single document. It is then no longer necessary to edit two editions; the multimedia features of the online version are created separately.
Based on the standardized Document Type Definition (DTD) which already takes the editorial and didactical needs of the FernUniversität into consideration, an XML format, which is the technical basis of the system is created and stored in a database.
FuXML formalizes and standardizes the processes for creating learning materials for all faculties –without limiting or preventing individual ideas. The development of multimedia courses in particular becomes less complicated. As a result of this, the amount of maintenance required has been reduced considerably. This enables cross media publishing meaning that the creation and use of learning materials at the FernUniversität has become more flexible.
An open source version of the cross media publishing system FuXML, openFuXML, has been developed and is available free of charge in the CampusSource exchange.