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Explora: An Open Virtual Campus Gilbert Paquette

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Explora: An Open Virtual Campus

Gilbert Paquette

LICEF Research Centre, Télé-université

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Ileana de la Teja

LICEF Research Centre, Télé-université

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Aude Dufresne

Département de Communications, Université de Montréal

Montreal, Quebec. Canada

Abstract. Telelearning research conducted in our research centre in the last five years has resulted in a Virtual Learning Centre (VLC) model and an implementation for Web-based training called Explora. This system is now in operation at Télé-université, in three professional corporations and in a company. Our VLC model focuses on the interaction spaces between five theoretical actors: the learner, the informer (content expert), the trainer, the manager and the designer. The Explora implementation supports learners and the other actors in their interactions. Each actor has a specific environment enabling him/her to manage his/her activities, consult and produce information, engage in collaboration and receive assistance from different sources. We will finally present a reengineering process that has been applied to transform a traditional distance education course into a web-based course within the Explora environment.

1. An Open Virtual Campus Model

In our societies, individuals and organisations are coping with an exponential growth of information and the knowledge management challenge. The rapidly evolving availability of multimedia telecommunication is an answer to this challenge but it has to be mastered, to mature, not mainly technologically but in the way people use it, in the way it is integrated to practice, conceptions and attitudes.

Behind terms like “distance education”, “on-line learning”, “telelearning” and “multimedia training”, is a multi-facetted reality from which we can identify many paradigms. High-tech classrooms, virtual classrooms (Hiltz, 1990), multimedia Web-based training, on-line learning communities (Harasim, 1990 and Ricciardi-Rigault et Henri, 1994) and electronic performance support systems (EPSS) (see Gery, 1997) are all modalities that can be integrated in a truly open virtual campus. Such a virtual campus will enable individuals and organisations to manage transitions from the predominant classroom presentation to fully interactive telelearning.

We see a telelearning system as a society of agents, to use Marvin Minski’s term, some of them providing information and explanations, others constructing new information, still others fostering collaboration between agents or providing assistance to the other agents on content, pedagogical process or organisation of activities.

A Virtual Learning Centre (VLC) is the central part of a Virtual Campus where instructional resources, learning events as well as technological and organisational infrastructure are created and assembled to forward the delivery of telelearning systems. Our VLC model (Paquette, 1997) emphasises the concept of a process-based learning scenario coupled with assistance resources. Basically, the learner proceeds to a scenario, a network of learning activities, using different kinds of information resources to help her achieve the tasks and produce some outcome: a problem solution or new information that can be used in other activities. The assistance resources for each task are also defined during design process. The assistance can be distributed among many agents: trainers interacting through e-mail or teleconferencing, other learners, contextual help or intelligent advisors.

2. The Explora Model: Actors, Roles and Agents

We have described elsewhere (Paquette et al, 1993 and Paquette et al, 1997) how we have built an object-oriented model of a Virtual Campus. In our Virtual Learning Centre architecture, we identify five actors, each personified by different persons or media agents.

The Learner transforms information into personal knowledge. “ Knowledge ” means the information that has been integrated by a cognitive entity into its own cognitive system, in a situated context and use. The learner achieves knowledge acquisition and construction by managing a learning environment planned by another actor, the designer, through collaboration with other learner agents, consulting and producing information, receiving assistance from other actors.

The Informer (the content expert) makes the information available to the learner. It may be a person or a group of persons presenting information, but also a book, a video, a software or any other material or media. Conversely, the learner will also produce information that can be made available to others through an informer agent, as a result of his/her production activities.

The Designer is the actor planning, adapting and sustaining a telelearning system (TLS) that integrates information sources (human informers or learning materials), and also self-management, assistance and collaboration tools for the other actors.

The Trainer provides pedagogical assistance by giving advice to the learner about his individual process and the interactions that may be useful to him based on the learning scenarios defined by the designer.

Finally, the Manager provides organisational assistance to the learner (and other actors) by managing actors and events, for example creating groups or making tele-services available in order to insure the success of the learning process, based on the scenarios defined by the designer.

Figure 1 - Actors and interaction spaces

Figure 1 shows the five theoretical actors and their interactions with the learner. In our VLC model, there are five interaction spaces: management, consultation, production, collaboration and assistance, each giving access to a number of resources.

3. The Delivery System: the Hyperguide and the Explora Environments

At delivery time, the learner and the other actors interact within a computer-based learning environment called the Virtual Learning Centre. The Explora implementation of such a system is a web-based server that helps designers build a learning environment for each actor, adapted to their role in a certain course or telelearning event. Then the other actors can use their own Explora environment to intervene in relation to the course web site.

Each course can be any web site we called the Hyperguide. This web site describes the course structure, down to learning scenarios and learning activities distributed into modules or learning units. Each scenario gives access to specific resources to be consulted or productions to make.

Figure 2 shows such a HyperGuide for an introductory course in artificial intelligence. The main window here is one of the Hyperguide pages showing the scenario for module 3. Each oval shape represents a learning activity. A click on it brings the description of the learning activity: goal and type of the activity, expected duration, resources to consult, productions to make, proposed assignment steps.

Figure 2 . A host HyperGuide within an Explora environment
The rectangular shapes give access to the input resources: a text to read, a video to watch, a CBT or a multimedia simulation to interact with. They also give access to output resources storing the learner’s production for future use in other activities, exchange with other learners or submission to a trainer for evaluation.

Different actors need different points of view on the host system in each interaction space. For example, in the information space, a learner will need different input resources such as a list of related web sites, videos from a server or didactic software on AI content. In the same information space, a trainer needs other information resources: traces of the learners activities for diagnosis, information on the group of learners and on learner productions and annotation tools to identify and organise information for assistance.

These resources are made available through an external palette as shown in the floating window of figure 2. This is what we call an Explora environment. It is an actor’s set of resources for a course or program supported by the Virtual learning centre. It groups resources into five interaction spaces (self-management, information, production, collaboration and assistance) according to an actor’s role and course specifics. In the example here, if we open any one of the five menus in the Explora window, we can gain access to the following resources.







Personal Profile


Personal information accessible to all

Progress status


Bar graph displaying progress levels

Calendar of events


Dates where activities were looked upon

Course schedule


Gantt distribution of activities



Suggestions and course evaluation by learners

Information resources



Access to texts to be consulted or produced



Access to video streaming



Access to interesting web sites

Search engines


To search for other web sites

Production resources



Triggers seven CBTs illustrating IA concepts

Text editor


Link to a recommended text editor

Knowledge editor


Link to LICEF’S MOT knowledge editor

Productions made


Simple file transfer to trainer for production evaluation

Collaboration resources

Group profile


Display of other learner’s progress and chat



Link to recommended email software



Asynchronous teleconferencing system



Simple upload/download to a server to facilitate the exchange of productions

Assistance resources

Explora guide


Information on use of the environment

Study guide


Access to a PDF description of the course

Technical help


A frequently asked questions (FAQ) facility

Resource persons


An e-mail list of persons: professor, tutor, manager, technician, etc.

Table 1. Example of the distribution of resources in an Explora Environment
These resources are all external to the web course. There are three types of resources:

  • Java applets that we have developed mainly to exploit the learner’s trace in the web course, to build individual progress reports, group profiles, advice generation or support to peer collaboration tools;

  • Executables downloaded or resident on the user’s workstation, that trigger CBTs, simulations, or generic software shared by the group so that file exchange is facilitated; this is particularly needed for some communication tools wherein the use of different software will simply not work.

  • HTML generic services that sometimes have to be sometime adapted to the course content; examples of these are course evaluation questionnaires through which learners and trainers will give feedback to designers to improve the course, and also the webography which is a structured list of commented web sites.

4. Reengineering a course for a Virtual Learning Centre

We will now focus on four major steps in a process through which a distance learning course can be re-engineered into an HyperGuide within Explora environments. In the example above, we started from a distance course at Télé-université based on a package containing printed documents, a 500 page book, a study guide describing the course and its learning activities and a technical guide for the software material). The package also contained 8 small software on 3 diskettes to illustrate IA concepts and 8 videos on VHS cassettes for a total of 4 hours' viewing time.

  1. Engineering the telelearning system. We have re-designed this course with MISA (Paquette et al 1997). The MISA method presents the ID processes and tasks according to an engineering perspective analogous to software engineering. This method innovates by using cognitive modelling techniques to represent knowledge, as well as pedagogical scenarios, learning materials specs and delivery plans. In this process, we have made all the fundamental decisions, separating the components specific to the AI content that must be integrated in the HyperGuide web site and the generic resources (documents, tools, services) that will be useful for this course in an Explora environment.

  2. Building the HyperGuide web site. This second step was rather straightforward, based on the MISA models that provided precise orientations to the development team. They could then focus on the ergonomics of the web site and the presentations of the pages with very little interaction needed from the designers. Three other courses have been rapidly constructed afterward on the same model.

  3. Selecting actors and resources. This task was achieved in parallel to the previous one, based on the MISA models. At this point, we have decided to have only two actors at delivery time: learners and trainers (called tutors here). An informer actor was not necessary, since all the content had been mediated. A manager actor may be added in the future. The learner’s and the trainer’s environments are quite similar but specific tools for the trainer have been designed to give them access to a more synthetic group progress profile, to maintain a FAQ, to animate teleconferences and to integrate their evaluation into the learner’s progress results.

Linking a course HyperGuide and the Explora environments. This last step has been presented recently with more details in (Girard et al, 1999). Essentially, the designer is here using some of the Explora designer’s tools to define progress levels for each learning activity or knowledge unit. Then these progress levels are updated according to the learner’s actions in the HyperGuide web site by the system, according to conditions defined by the designer, or by the learner’s direct action in a viewing interface. These progress levels form a user model employed by the system to give feedback and support to the learner. Support is given using help messages, avatars demonstrations, but also adapting the interface with graphical cues to guide the learner to aspects of his task or to resources that may be useful to him. This aspect is being developed in a new graphic adaptive interface described in (Dufresne et al, 1999).


There are many advantages to the open architecture that has been presented here. The Virtual Learning Centre is at the learning organisation’s level, thus avoiding duplication and facilitating evolution and reuse of resources from one course to another. It also speeds up the design process because each individual web-course (the Hyperguide) is freed from all the generic resources and the information management load between different actors. Furthermore, each course can have a very different content, structure and presentation. In fact, it can be any web site, regardless of the software used to produce it. On the other hand, all of the Explora environments are similarly structured, thus facilitating their use in different courses by learners, trainers or managers. From an organisation’s viewpoint, this architecture facilitates management through standardisation of resources, without constraining the design teams in a particular authoring software.


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