The Computer Mediated Learning Environment Recommendation

Information Technology/Distance Learning Committee
Fuqua School of Business
Duke University

March 21, 1994
(Revised May 1995)

This note is a revised version of a Memorandum from the FSB IT/Distance Learning Committee to the School's administrators. This committee was formed in response to a series of notes prepared by Professor John McCann on the Cyberspace Challenge facing business schools in general, and our school in particular. Members of the committee: John Gallagher, Bob Nau, Greg Fischer, Preston Bottger, Bob Price and John McCann (Chairman).

The Distance Learning/IT Committee has met twice, and will continue to meet to explore the need for technologies to support and enhance our existing and new education programs. This memo contains an Action Item that needs your attention as soon as possible.

It has become evident from our own meetings as well as discussion with other faculty that we need to consider two different technologies: Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and video. Although we are early in our technology assessment and education design processes, it is clear that we will make extensive use of CMC technology, but the jury is still out on when and how we will deploy live video in our education programs. So, this note concerns our immediate needs to upgrade our computer mediated communications capabilities. We will pursue video in a later communication.

Time is important in our efforts. In order to deliver new programs and/or augment existing programs with technology, common sense and some recent research indicate that we must provide the technology environment well in advance of the program so that faculty can learn how to use and manage it.

Faculty should be able to learn more about distance learning and to "try out" the technology before they are required to make a commitment to teach a course in this format.[1]

Given that we are already very busy, we cannot expect faculty to experience the technology in the abstract, i.e., learn to use the technology without a purpose. So, we are proposing that we first integrate the new technologies into our current MBA, WEMBA, and Exec Ed programs. Based upon this experience, we will be in a much better position to adapt our courses, materials, and teaching styles to the requirements of the new programs such as the World-Wide Executive MBA program. We propose, therefore, that we build a computer mediated learning environment (CMLE) based upon the best available CMC technology, and that this system be designed to meet our current needs and be expandable to people located around the world. The important features of this CMLE are e-mail, bulletin boards, file transfer, and remote logon to computers at FSB. These features are discussed in more depth in the Appendix.

What would we do with a CMLE if we had it today? We asked one member of the committee to provide a personal answer to this question, and the response is included below.

"The most important thing I would do right away with a school-wide electronic-bulletin-board system would be to use it to post announcements to my classes and to get their immediate feedback on lectures and assignments. With our compressed six-week course format, we have all been urged to gather our own mid-course feedback at least several times per term, and some faculty are doing it every lecture---but it's awkward to keep passing out and collecting 3x5 cards, students don't always know until they get home what they wished they had said, and it's at least a couple of days before we can respond anyway. In the Decision Models course especially, we need to be able to provide fast technical support if questions or problems arise with the modeling techniques and software while students are working on their assignments. A bulletin-board system would allow everyone to collect fast, anonymous feedback throughout the term--and respond to it--which (for many of us) would revolutionize our interactions with our students and would help make "continuous improvement" a reality in the classroom. It would also (finally) make a dent in our paper-copying and box-stuffing operations. In a zillion other ways, creating a system like this would enhance the sense of community and empowerment of both students and faculty."

And if we don't do it, I think everyone is going to wake up one day a year from now and realize that our corporate customers and B-school competitors have left us in the dust. It used to be that a majority of the faculty were computer-illiterate because PCs were treated as perks, not something a business school professor ought to know how to use. Now we all have 486s but we are informationally illiterate, a much more serious handicap in the race for "worldwide leadership."

This note points to a sense of empowerment and community that will result from our adoption of a bulletin board system. This is clearly the result that is reported by people who use today's systems such as Internet, Compuserve, and Online America. And our students seem to have felt a loss of community when we went to our new curriculum and condensed terms. It is this aspect of our CMLE that so excites us, and using technology to enhance our community will be absolutely necessary when we expand from today's local situation to tomorrow's world wide focus.

A requirement for our CMLE is that it be tied in with today's Internet and tomorrow's Information Highway because this worldwide network of computers provides a source of information, knowledge, and expertise that we can leverage to increase our ability to deliver a world class education program. Our faculty knows how to bring our personal knowledge to bear in a course. And, we know how to bring printed material such as books, cases, and articles to bear. And outside speakers. And, we know how to enhance the learning process by getting the students to share their knowledge, either inside and outside the classroom. A few of us know how to put information on our local area network so students can download it when they need it.

What the Information Highway brings us is the ability to incorporate into our courses the knowledge that exists on the worldwide network of tens of thousands of computers and tens of millions of people. Just as we now "pick the brains" of our students to enrich the classroom, we can pick the brains of millions of people spread around the world ... whether they are our students or not. The Information Highway dramatically increases the supply of information and knowledge that one can incorporate into an educational experience. It is this feature that leads us to the challenge that was posed by one of our members.

"I do not want to use technology to make a learning experience about as good as the one you would have had if you had enrolled in our on campus program. I want to use technology so that our future students receive a better experience than the ones who are currently enrolled at FSB. I want both the resident and the non-resident students to have an outstanding program."

How might the use of computer mediated communication enhance a program? Consider the upcoming visit to the School by Fred Davidson, a Vice President at NCR, who will be making a presentation to the students. He will make his speech, get a few question, leave FSB, and return to his job. Suppose, though, that he was encouraged to leave the students with a few unanswered questions and/or some issues he was pursuing. Further, suppose that he was hooked into the Information Highway via a service such as Compuserve or AT&T EasyLink. The students could work on the questions and issues, and carry on a computer mediated conversation with him as they proceed. This activity could be part of a formal class, or it could be an aspect of our speaker series. (As we get into video conferencing, it will not be necessary for the executive to physically visit FSB.)

Thus we can see that a CMLE will allow us to extend our education program outside the walls of this building, to corporate people who have problems that would like to explore and to experts who have knowledge that we would like to tap into as part of our education programs. This could definitely provide a better education and learning environoment than the one that we have now.

Action Item

We strongly recommend that resources be allocated to build a computer mediated learning environment so that faculty can begin using it in the MBA and the WEMBA program in September 1994. This CMLE should include state-of-the-art e-mail, bulletin board, and file transfer facilities, as well as a state-of-the-art interface to Internet.


Bulletin board Classes that are taught via the case method, as well as classes that involve considerable discussion of articles and/or current topics, can thrive in a CMLE. In an FSB class, the instructor directs a discussion that occurs in one to two hours, with each student getting 5-10 minutes of air time. We can do the same thing on a bulletin board by letting the case discussion span several days. Consider the following scenario. I would start the class by posting a question on the board. Students would be instructed to monitor the board, and to post their answers to the questions. I could have several questions going at once, and I could direct individual students to respond to certain points by specified times. Thus I would have to get involved in the discussion several times a day. When the class is over, I would have to grade each student. Bulletin boards are becoming very common in universities; 25% of all classes at the University of Michigan utilize bulletin boards. The reason for such adoption is that the professors find that bulletin boards produce a better educational experience.[2]

E-mail Classes that use a lot of homework between residence periods could have it submitted and returned via the e-mail facilities. When it became evident that students were confused about some point, the professor could post a short note on a class bulletin board or could broadcast the note to all students in the class via e-mail. Students working on projects could communicate with each other via e-mail, or they could use a bulletin board.

Remote Login Students could use a facility similar to Internet's Telnet facility to log into an FSB server where they could do things like run SAS, extract data from a database, etc. This might allow a student to do on-line searches of the library's databases.

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) FTP is a facility for transferring files from a server to your computer. Course material could be put on the FSB server and each student could transfer it to their computer via FTP. In addition, short lectures could be audio- or video-taped, stored in compressed format on the server, and thus available via FTP. Similarly, a professor could speak into a mike while going through a series of Freelance slides, and the words would be attached to each slide. Students could FTP this material to their computers, where the audio would play as they paged through the slides. Voice annotations could be attached to papers submitted in word processor format, and then returned to the student via e-mail.


  1. Gregory Blanch, "Don't All Faculty Want Their Own TV Show? Barriers to Faculty Participation in Distance Education," DEOSNEWS, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1994 (DEOSNEWS is an on-line journal published by DEOS: The Distance Education Online Symposium. It has 1,971 subscribers in 50 countries.)
  2. Danny M. Adkinson, "Teaching Political Science with a Bulletin Board System," Social Science Computing Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1989, p. 188-190