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The Other Infrastructure: Distance Education's Digital Plant

 By Judith V. Boettcher and M. S. Vijay Kumar

Part of the lure of delivering higher education on the l web is the apparent promise of lower infrastructure costs by avoiding the traditional campus infrastructure costs. Or do we need a new type of physical plant —a digital plant?

With the emergence of the new teaching and learning environment in a virtual world —on the web— many higher education supporters and planners, waved their hands and said, Wow, at last an answer to access!   (We can’t be sure they said exactly that, but the sense is there!) They may have continued on…, “No more new campuses! No more huge expensive building projects and land acquisitions!  No more operating budgets that consume the budget! All we have to do is to get the faculty to move their teaching and learning to the web!

Presidents, provosts, congress people, all began rejoicing that a way to accommodate the predicted wave of students wanting access to higher education over the next 10- 15 years had arrived, and just in time. They were “saved” from having to build new colleges and universities.   

The movement to shift learning away from the physical campus to the digital campus is well underway and we are learning that some of those early reactions were well founded. The good news is that we can use the web to improve access and meet many learning needs; the bad news is that we are learning that the “web campus” ---just like the traditional campus depends on a complex, costly, ever more expanding “web campus” resource. The need for new buildings and campuses has given way — to the need for ever larger and more efficient networks, servers, applications, and services.  

We now know—or are beginning to know — that our web campus does not magically appear — as the web and our browsers almost seemingly did.  We are learning that on line programs are not “almost” free to deliver.  We are learning that we need a complex new structure to support our Web Campuses, and skilled people to operate them. We started the 90’s very familiar with the workings of the physical plant infrastructure that supports our traditional campuses.  We are starting the first decade of the 21st century with a growing awareness that a digital plant infrastructure is what is needed to support the flexible web campus environments. In other words a new digital plant is needed—a new infrastructure. Just as our physical infrastructure, this new digital infrastructure needs to be designed, built, planned, maintained, and staffed.

We’ll come back to the role of faculty and students in this Web Campus Infrastructure sometime in the future. Faculty are not digital —as yet, and that students are not digital—as yet! (Once both faculty and students are both virtual, we’ll revisit this discussion.) We’ll also return to the fortunate fact that the new Web Campus infrastructure also supports the transition and reinventing of the traditional campus infrastructure. The educational program services conveniently accessed by distance learners are very attractive and useful to on-campus students as well. Convenience and saving time is at the top of everyone’s list! 

How the physical campus infrastructure will become integrated with the new Web Campus Infrastructure is still evolving, and how much overlap in costs and staffing is unknown. But the need for the digital campus – on or off campus is clear.  {Note: Some gurus suggests that a “full implementation of a plan for technology support on campus “costs about the same as support a library —approximately 5% of the education and general budget”. (Brown, 2000)}

What is an Infrastructure?   What is the Other Infrastructure?

So, what is an infrastructure? What does a digital infrastructure look like? The American Heritage Dictionary—the Softkey 4.0 1995 version— defines an infrastructure as the “underlying base or foundation.of an organization or system.“ A second definition is more detailed, offering that an infrastructure is the set of  “basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.”  Translated into our current campus physical plant, the infrastructure is the set of buildings, lands, roads, facilities, utilities, and services that support the delivery of instruction, the discovery of research, and public service programs.    

What about the digital plant infrastructure?  One way of describing the web campus infrastructure is to think of it as being constructed of four major categories.  Those categories are:

  1. personal communication tools and applications,
  2. a network of networks that serve the campus LANs and provide links to the off campus, remote, national and global networks.

  3. dedicated servers and software applications on those servers that manage campus services. (Remember, servers are just specialized computers dedicated to “serving” or providing focused services.) These servers provide services such as in-going and outgoing mail, web sites, web applications, campus directories, program and course management systems, administrative services such as financial, student services, and human resources, and the new e-commerce servers, and 
  4. software applications and services from external providers, such as research and library services that are licensed to the campus community, Internet services, and outsourced services, such as network services, etc.

None of these systems work without people to manage them, so a key component of the Web Campus infrastructure are the people.  The graphic shows the people at the center of this infrastructure. Let’s examine these categories in more detail and see what they include.

Personal communication tools and applications

First, personal communications tools and applications.> Personal communication tools and applications are evolving into personal appliances.  These communications tools and applications for teaching, learning and research have been transforming themselves over the last 20 years from being mainframe campus tools, to minicomputer department tools to dedicated personal desktop tools. They are evolving again from the desktop to the laptop to the palmtop and to the wrist top! This means that the tools for teaching and learning are more portable than ever. The latest competitiveness among early adopters is who has the smallest cell phone or Pilot organizer that can access and “do” email, phone, and the web. With these developments, the computer has arrived as a “brain extension tool” that is always with us and that is as portable and personal as paper and pencil.

What does this mean for our web campus infrastructures?   It likely means that student expectations of what is available in the web campus will continue to increase.  Students will likely expect to be able to access not only teaching and learning interactions and resources, but also all their administration and financial transactions anywhere and anytime. This means that we want to plan for a 24 by 7 support infrastructure for our web campuses.

Network of Networks for the Web Campus —the Digital Roads

The second category of the infrastructure for the Web Campus is networks. Networks have many layers of physical hardware, software applications, middleware and licensing. Networks require cabling, routers, switches, management and security software, agreements, and license fees. Why are networks necessary for teaching and learning? These local area networks, wide-area networks, and national and global networks link the personal communication tools together and provide the anywhere, anytime access for flexible and convenient learning..

Probably, the most common bandwidth speed on our campuses is shared Ethernet 10 megabit and not surprisingly, pressure is on to upgrade to higher bandwidth, such as a switched 10 megabit Ethernet to accommodate MPEG1 video applications as part of the Internet2 architecture. (For more on a digital networked video project at Northwestern, see http://www.cren.net/know/techtalk/events/netdigvideo.html. The Web Campus needs to plan for advanced high bandwidth services, applications for online learning will be constrained by the network speed that most students and faculty use in their homes— 56KB.

Dedicated Servers and Software Applications — The New Offices and Classroom Spaces

The third category of dedicated servers and software applications is very comprehensive. Because it represents — more than any other category — the physical spaces of the new Web Campus.  These dedicated servers are the new classrooms, the new libraries, the new offices of the digital plant of the Web Campus. One way of thinking about this category is that for every service or transaction that an on-campus student might need or want is that an equivalent service or transaction capability is needed (or at least, recommended) for the Web Campus. This means that every campus service will serve the campus from a digital space that is equivalent to the analog space. It is as if each of the Servers in this category is a Student Counter or Service Center in our traditional campus. For now, the only “student counters” that are not likely to be replicated soon on line are the “pizza counters” and the “exercise centers.”

Let’s think about the category of servers that support the teaching and learning infrastructure subset of the traditional campus. The traditional teaching and learning infrastructure dedicated to the teaching and learning processes generally consists of spaces devoted to classrooms, libraries, the student union, faculty offices, and department offices. These spaces generally map on to particular teaching and learning uses as follows: 

  • The classroom spaces are primarily intended for the communications between faculty and students. This space is supplied with overhead projector, chairs, heating and lighting, lecterns, etc.   The server applications that are developing to mimic this space are best exemplified by the course management systems offerings, from vendors such as BlackBoard, WebCT and other vendors.  These server applications provide a set of applications that taken together create a set of digital spaces for faculty and students to congregate, share resources, and to communicate. This digital space begins to combine the spaces that we now recognize as the classroom, the library and the union.
  • The library is generally intended for the course resources for the students and for the faculty member in the planning and design of the course. The library maps on to the servers containing digital libraries and databases that are both internal to the campus as well as those external to the campus.
  • The student union is generally used for communications between students and for support of student life. Rochester Institute of Technology has a web site that they call the Virtual Union.  This server combines all the resources about student life, about which students might inquire. It is an information source, almost a library for student information that is available and stocked with current information. (See http://ritvu.rit.edu/)
  • Faculty offices are generally dedicated to one-on-one communications with students and preparation for meetings with students.  The server that is now becoming the faculty office overlaps with the course server.  Faculty may well have a place that is faculty centric, combining research foci, publications, and one-on-one communications with students, particularly with graduate students.  These servers may be departmental servers that provide  “office space” for many faculty.
  • Department offices (and more centralized support areas) are generally the spaces where faculty and support staff for teaching and learning design and plan new programs and where students receive support for planning their programs. Servers supporting these services may contain access to training programs, design templates, new teaching and learning tools, and admin services such as market research and program promotions.
We are obviously in a period of transition where both the old and the new “spaces” need to be supported.  During this time, faculty need a set of services to support their transition and integration of the Web Campus and the mixing of the traditional and digital infrastructures. It is an expensive and complex time.

(Possible box)

A very informal survey in the fall of 1999 asked faculty development personnel at 20 universities to identify the top three issues that their faculty were facing in the building of their teaching and learning infrastructure. The most frequently cited issues included the need for institutional support for the use of the new teaching and learning tools and services, support for planning the new teaching and learning, faculty training, and funds, governance and a concern for quality. The survey also asked which services faculty most frequently requested. These results were insightful. Faculty were requesting help in what we called Course ‘life-cycling” needs for the web.  They were requesting help in (1) course creation planning, (2) developing of courses, and (3) managing the delivery of web courses.   Help in archiving and datamining of courses that had already been delivered was also mentioned. 

Faculty also were interested in more support in learning general productivity software applications, and in learning course management and development tools, such as mailing lists, spreadsheets, and integrating video components into their web courses. Finally, support for students was also frequently mentioned. Just as faculty need support in shifting their teaching and learning habits, many students, especially if they are over 30, grew up after the digital convergence. They also have ingrained habits from the traditional campus teaching and learning models.

Basic Characteristics of a Good Teaching and Learning Infrastructure

So, after all is said and done, the characteristics of a supportive teaching and learning infrastructure for the new Web Campus are not so surprising:

They include a campus environment with People, Spaces, and Stuff such as tools, equipment and resources supported by Services that support teaching and learning: networks, communication services, such as mailing lists, bulletin boards, virtual spaces for meetings, and support for the faculty and the students. This is the basic Services component of an infrastructure built and delivered with the now available Technology. These services are best provided within an integrated and reliable Organization, and managed under a set of campus wide Policies for access and security.

To sum up in the words of a well-known technology research fellow, Alan Kay: - A good infrastructure should “make simple things easy and difficult things possible.”  

A good teaching and learning infrastructure also has other enduring attributes:

First and foremost, a good teaching and learning infrastructure will allow us to deliver educational value - whether that value is through multimedia content, electronic discussion boards or simply access to e-mail and web services. The ability of the infrastructure to deliver different kinds of value programs without major redesigns is a key characteristic. Educational value includes supporting synchronous and asynchronous learning, on campus and distant learners, and collaboration over time and space. 

A good infrastructure is also scalable. It must be designed and tested to handle growth in terms of increased number of users, more demanding applications, and a greater variety of applications. At the same time it should easily accommodate smaller application domains. (Vijay not sure what you mean with your term smaller application domain here.)

Another characteristic of a good teaching and learning infrastructure is “mission critical availability:” This means that the infrastructure must be reliable and consistently available (24 hours a day and 7 days a week) to meet the needs of the faculty and the students in the programs.

The infrastructure we build for teaching and learning has to be sustainable, resilient and pliable enough to accommodate technology changes and the test of time. A sustainable infrastructure will be based on an architecture that depends on open, published standards, reusability of components, serviceability and maintainability. A sustainable infrastructure can be integrated into existing infrastructure and practices. The infrastructure has to be stable, long-lived, and widely available.

Software Applications and Services External to the Campus Digital Plant

The fourth category of the new digital infrastructure is a set of services providing telecommunication, network services, and research and library services such as databases and licensed content resources. These are services and resources that are very difficult for a campus to provide for themselves. Consortial memberships and services are also part of this category.

The digital infrastructures developed by campuses will differ significantly according to their mission, programs, and initiatives.  The example from MIT shows a digital plant in action.

The Teaching and Learning Infrastructure for New MIT Communities

MIT is launching two new initiatives for the extended learning community that represent important large scale "educational experiments:" the year-old Singapore-MIT Alliance and the recently announced Cambridge-MIT Institute. An effective way of thinking about the infrastructure required to deliver these programs is to plan for the infrastructure along three layers or dimensions, that of  (1) technology,  (2) organization, and (3) policy.

1. Technology Infrastructure

The major components of the technology to support these initiatives cluster around connectivity, classrooms, and content.  The connectivity that is essential to support the video streaming and live video of the Singapore-MIT programs is the high bandwidth Internet2 (vBNS). Also, the video depends on specially configured classrooms at both MIT and Singapore. For other teaching methodologies, we have used tools such as Netmeeting to support synchronous collaboration and a hybrid of two locally developed systems of Web-delivered course creation and management to support the needs of asynchronous content.  This hybrid system is composed of the COMMAND system, a Lotus Notes/Domino server-based system —created by John Williams in the Intelligent Engineering Systems Laboratory in Civil Engineering— and the Hypermedia Instruction and Teaching Environment (HITE), a >CGI>, Javascript and HTML template system designed by Dr. Nishikant Sonwalkar (http://curricula.mit.edu/About/).

2. Organization

Launching these two new programs required not only new combinations of technology but also prompted new organizational alignments. A new support center — The Educational Media Creation Center  (EMCC) —was created.  The goal in creating this center was to bring together IT competencies from diverse organizational units, such as Information Systems and the Center for Advanced Educational Services. This program required a new combination of skills to meet the production, delivery and support of educational materials with sustainability as a key guiding principle.

To summarize, the design principles for the infrastructure for this program followed many of the principles discussed above.

The infrastructure had to support:

  • synchronous and asynchronous learning
  • on-campus and distant learners
  • collaboration over space and time

And the infrastructure needed to be:

  • scalable —to accommodate a growing number of users and programs
  • reliable i.e available on a mission-critical basis
  • secure

The production and delivery of materials needed to meet the requirements

  • sustainability
  • reliability
  • security

3. Policy

Equally significant, but perhaps not as well understood or defined, are the issues related to the >policy> substrate of the infrastructure. The extended community raises questions about how membership to the MIT community is defined and the extent of access to resources, such as library resources, and software licensing that are permissible under current arrangements, authentication, authorization and security issues.

Looking ahead we see a multidirectional expansion of MIT's distance education opportunities: expansion of the current Singapore-MIT program with more courses being offered simultaneously, and more graduate programs similar to the Cambridge-MIT Institute. In addition, these programs will be enhanced with real and virtual opportunities for interactivity and collaboration using innovations such as remote virtual labs, video tutor, animations, visualizations and simulations, and multipoint videoconferencing.

The expansion and new features will present new infrastructure challenges at several levels - those related to technology issues such as bandwidth and Quality of Service, distribution facilities, and more enhanced classrooms and organizational issues such as how to provide distributed support with distributed responsibility. The policy issues will grow as well.

How is the Digital Plant Similar to the Physical Plant?

The Digital Plant for a Web Campus shares many characteristics with the Physical Plant.  The digital plant needs to be planned, designed, maintained, operated, and staffed. This can only be done with a reasonable size staff and budget. The digital plant also needs to be extraordinarily reliable, as the community will be depending on it for mission-critical applications around the clock from around the globe. 

How is the Digital Plant Different from the Physical Plant?

The Digital Plant for a Web Campus is also quite different from the physical plant. This digital plant is nearly invisible for most people —until it doesn’t work. In this respect, it is similar to the heating and lighting of a physical plant.  The digital plant is only visible to the average user through the LCD panel of a user’s personal communication tools. This feature of the digital plant links to another significant difference.  When there is a failure event in a digital plant, it can be a monumental failure affecting the entire community.  (Yes, this can also happen with a physical plant, but it is less likely, and if it does happen, often the entire surrounding community is failing under the same event.) Thus budgets for redundancy, backup, security and people who know how to use them are essential. One other feature differentiating the physical plant from the digital plant is that the life cycle of so many of the components of the digital plant are quite short.  Thus new time focused methods of budgeting will likely evolve. 

How will the Digital Plant Evolve?  What will it look like soon?

The technology, organization and policy components of the evolving digital plant are already much clearer now than just 3-4 years ago.  We have the beginnings of guidelines for lifecycling of many components of the infrastructure, that are in the main additive to our current physical infrastructure.  I suspect that most of the activity over the next 3-4 years will be in the integration of the physical and the digital as we transition to new spaces.  Hopefully, this integration will bring some scaling and economy for costs and staff.  What do you think?   

Brown, David  G.  Academic Planning and Technology. In Boettcher, Judith V., Mary M. Doyle, and Richard W. Jensen, eds. 2000. Technology-Driven Planning: Principles to Practice. Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning.


Revised June 4, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010