Facilitating Instructor-Student Collaboration on the Internet


The Internet is a rich computing environment, capable of supporting a broad range of collaborative activities and well suited to enrich the instructional process. This guide was developed to assist instructors in using the various electronic tools available. Keep in mind that individual schools may or may not support all of the options discussed here. Additional information on many of these options is available in the PennNet Passport.

This document is not meant to be a tutorial on how to implement these strategies directly. For information on the availability and support of these network technologies in your school, check with the appropriate school support organization.

Overview of Strategies

These products and technologies can assist instructors in improving the way they communicate with students. These strategies were originally supported by a set of stand-alone products. More recently, course management products have developed which offer a more integrated, organized, and packaged set of services supporting one or more of these needs. These systems, typically web-based, can support both synchronous ("real time") and asyncronous (not "real time") experiences.

A variety of specific functions and specific implementation strategies are available:

Details of Strategies

Announcements to Students
Distribution of Assignments

Faculty often have announcements for students related to assigned work, class meetings, other course requirements, or related information. Two approaches are recommended:

  • For those faculty more comfortable with e-mail, or concerned about privacy of some or all of the announcements, mailing lists work well to inform classes about relevant information. A mailing lists also supports follow-up questions and discussion, at the expense of filling up student e-mail boxes; broadcasting a message intended to be a private response to the whole list by mistake; or worse, students not even checking mail for fear there is more there than they care to see ("junk mail" syndrome). ISC operates a general-purpose List Management service (not all schools participate).

  • For others, the efficiency of posting to a class newsgroup, or maintaining a class Web page may be more appealing. Follow-up discussion is still possible (at least via NetNews right now), though discussion is public to the campus. And students will have to remember to check the newsgroup or Web site.
By far the most prevalent, e-mail is now a basic form of communication between individuals and groups of individuals. It is active on the sender's part (s/he must initiate some action by sending a message using an e-mail product like Elm or Eudora), but passive on the reader's part (s/he must simply log on and see if mail has been sent). E-mail is easy: it follows the basic paradigm of postal mail; most e-mail products work the same way.

One advantage of e-mail lies is the ability to send messages to more than one recipient – potentially thousands of recipients! This feature can be used in a variety of ways. You can create private alias lists that allow you to send messages to a single address and have them go to multiple individuals. Some e-mail servers (like Pobox) allow users to create "reflector lists" which are similar to private alias lists except that any other user can send a message to the list along with the list creator. Yet another more sophisticated product is called listservtm, which has the same basic functionality as the other lists, but has additional features as well: more formal list administration tools, ability to restrict list membership and activities, and message archiving features.

A special implementation of tm at Penn allows for class lists to be generated automatically for faculty. These class lists are generated from the University's Student Records System (SRS). Every night the list is refreshed. Faculty may add additional members to the list – teaching assistants, other faculty – or others who may not be enrolled in the course officially. Faculty have a lot of control over who can send messages to the list (just the faculty and TA's, just members of the list, any one at all, etc.).

But beware! You cannot presume that an intended recipient will read your message quickly, or even at all. In addition, while graphical e-mail products like Eudora do a good job of allowing files to be attached and transported from one user to another, you should be aware of the impact that large file attachments (or even small file attachments) have on the network and the servers that serve as post offices for users. Most users have rather small disk space allocations on e-mail servers. A single message from you can consume someone's entire allocation. And a small attachment sent to a large number of users can have just as devastating an effect on the network and the servers.

Some departments offer advice on using e-mail for courses. In addition, there is a growing set of rules for users of Penn's electronic resources that may affect how one uses e-mail lists of all types, but especially large lists.

Public bulletin boards, or conferencing, is available on the Internet through a facility called NetNews. NetNews is composed of a collection of topical discussion groups. Some are brought into Penn from the public Internet (called Usenet), others are originated here and available exclusively for internal use. ISC operates Penn's central NetNews server.

NetNews is an interactive environment that allows messages, even files of other types, to be posted in a common, topical location and retrieved by all users with access to the system. For Usenet newsgroups, that is essentially the world. For Penn newsgroups, it is the entire Penn community. Many Schools and departments have established newsgroups corresponding to individual courses offered for the purpose of promoting discussion and making course-related announcements. Faculty post homework assignments, review session dates and locations, and answer questions. All posts can be viewed by all students in the course, or anyone else at Penn for that matter.

Some faculty find NetNews to be a less hospitable environment for faculty-student interaction. While good, graphical client software is available, there are some restrictions on the use of this software in public computer labs (posting messages is usually disabled since the poster's identity cannot be authenticated from a public computer lab). Unlike e-mail or mailing lists, NetNews is an active medium on the part of both the provider of information and the viewer: faculty and students must run the client software to post both new or follow-up information, or to check the relevant newsgroups for new material, rather than wait for messages to arrive in their mailboxes.

Because of the public nature of NetNews, discussion may not take place as freely as some faculty or students might like since the whole Penn community can monitor the newsgroups. Private conferencing offers some additional benefits. A number of new technologies and products are emerging to provide this functionality.

Collection of Assigned
Work from Students

Currently, e-mail is the only solution for collecting individually assigned work from students electronically. Its availability is nearly ubiquitous, and communications essentially stay confidential between faculty and students. Security is good but not flawless in the e-mail products currently available, but better strategies to secure e-mail are developing. Use of attachments needs to be done with care: files should not be too big (up to 500Kbytes) and recipients should know what formats to expect.

Work is also being done to create a Web environment capable of supporting student "drop off" facilities for assignments that may also make it possible to share completed assignments with fellow students when appropriate. Through a rich set of multi-media tools and a consistent user interface provided by Web browsers, faculty have the ability to publish a wide variety of information and retain a fair amount of control over who has access to view it. The Web is not a good medium (yet) for discussion. ISC supports a variety of information provider features on the central PennWeb server, http://www.upenn.edu/. Many schools replicate these services and provide others. Much work is being done in this area, and new strategies and tools will continue to be developed.

Distribution of Class Notes
Online Resource Material

The Web is by far the best way to distribute class notes, bibliographies, and resource material. Increasingly, the wealth of material available from other organizations is Web-based. Many class "home pages" that serve as repositories of course activity that can continue beyond the end of the semester. While e-mail is still an option, the continuing "information explosion" makes it of limited use in assembling pointers to material that students can easily access from anywhere, anytime.

Distribution of Class
Presentations by Students

Some faculty may want to allow student presentation materials to be accessible by others in the class (or from elsewhere). Once again, the Web provides the richest environment to present and organize such a repository, though e-mail is an alternative if the material is not prepared in a multi media format, or if students will be expected to organize the material themselves.

Online Office

Faculty may want to hold "virtual" office hours during which time they might answer individual (or group) questions from students. E-mail is certainly the best way to have private interaction. However, both MOO and NetNews technologies might be more useful if a larger audience (the whole class, others) might benefit from the discussion.

MOO stands for MUD-Object-Oriented, though MUD has various interpretations (Multi-User Dungeon, Multi-User-Dimension). MOO represents the closest thing to a real-time environment that the Internet has to offer. Users are authenticated into an interactive environment to experience real-time interaction. Use of MOO at Penn is fairly limited, due in part to the relatively crude character-terminal-based tools available for experiencing this environment. Many participants in PennMOO for English, for instance, find the environment very user-friendly and hospitable for student/faculty and student/student interactions.

NetNews offers a better software interface, while a MOO offers a slightly easier paradigm for discussion with cruder software.

Online Quizzes
or Tests

Only Web technology provides the ability for online forms to administer tests and quizzes. One good example of this is WebAssign from North Carolina State University. Additional work needs to be done to reliably authenticate students and be sure that work submitted is from the appropriate person. For assignments that are more text-oriented, e-mail is still a better solution (with additional security if possible).

Open Discussion about
Course Content

All the technologies being offered can be used to support general discussion. The technology that should be used depends on whether the discussions should be more private (e-mail) or less private (NetNews, MOO), more controlled by the faculty member (Web, listserv depending on how the class list is set up) or less controlled (NetNews, MOO, e-mail).

Redistribution of Evaluated
Assignments to Students

E-mail is the easiest way to both collect and return evaluated assignments. Confidentiality is maintained (based on the ability of the security implemented in the e-mail products used). Once again, work is being done to develop student "pick up" areas similar to assignment "drop off" areas on the Web.


Additional analysis of the products and strategies discussed above is also available.

Contact: Dr. Noam H. Arzt, arzt@isc.upenn.edu
Last modified:  01 February 2012