KRNet '94 Jun, Levin, & Jacobson paper

The Message Assistant:
A communication tool for educational networks

Youngcook Jun
James Levin
Michael Jacobson

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Paper presented at KRNet '94 workshop, Seoul, Korea
July 1994


The Message Assistant has been developed as a communication tool for educational interactions using wide-area networks. The basic function of Message Assistant provides an Internet connection (using Eudora, a POP client, to handle the communications), and a direct access to FrEdMail, a grass-roots educational network, through modem.We will first describe several features of the software. The Message Assistant contains a rule engine which allows users to automatically handle messages, filtering and organizing them. It also has hypertextual tools with which the users can turn a message base into a knowledge base. With those features, electronic messages can easily be categorized into multiple views. Finally, the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a HyperCard-based program of this complexity will also be discussed.


Recently, the use of networks in education has gathered much attention from educational innovators, researchers and technologists. As part of research in this emerging area, we have been developing a communication tool with which people can more effectively deal with their electronic mail. In this paper, we will describe several features of the software we have developed, the Message Assistant. We will also discuss some advantages as well as disadvantages of developing such a complicated prototype for educational networks.

Features of Message Assistant

In order to meet the users' various needs in accessing wide-area networks, a HyperCard-based communication tool has been developed which we call the Message Assistant. This program not only helps network users to deal with routine activities such as message creating, sending, receiving, replying and forwarding, but it also offers several other features that will be described in the subsequent sections.

Communications with Internet and FrEdMail

The basic functionality of the Message Assistant is its capability of exchanging email via the Internet and via FrEdMail, a grass-roots educational network. FrEdMail allows Apple computer users (teachers and students) to conduct educational interactions in a very inexpensive way. Since FrEdMail is a very popular network at the pre-college level, it is important for teachers and students to easily communicate with each other. For such practical purpose, the Message Assistant provides an easy-to-use interface for direct access to FrEdMail by dialing up through modem. By using buttons and menu items, the users can create, send, receive, reply and forward messages without any difficulties.

Internet connection is supported by client software called Eudora while the intercommunication between Message Assistant and Eudora is implemented by AppleScript built into HyperCard 2.2. The use of AppleEvents allows the Message Assistant to request Eudora (a POP client) to deal with routine activities such as message sending, receiving, replying and forwarding while message creation, reading, and organization are carried out in Message Assistant. Figure 1 illustrates how a message is created to be sent out via Eudora.

Figure 1. Message Assistant sends a message out via Eudora 1.4.2.

Rule-based message processing

As network users face an ever increasing number of incoming messages, the users are likely to want to automate preprocessing of some messages. For that purpose, the Message Assistant user can create rules that consists of conditions and actions. By specifying keywords for different fields such as "To", "From", "Subject", etc., a subset of messages can be organized and in some cases dealt with automatically. Such a processing mechanism is often useful for automatic replying or forwarding messages. A message can also be prioritized with a certain scale (from -1 to 1). In other words, an action part of the executed rule can automatically change the priority of the original message (see figure 2 for creating message rules). When a message is highly prioritized, the user is likely to immediately read the message whereas a message with low priority might be ignored according to the user's choice.

Figure 2. A sample screen of a message rule card which filters out messages

playing a role of mediator for the user.

Another capability of using rules is to assign several views to the processed messages. Mapping messages onto certain views assists the users to explicitly conceptualize diverse topics among messages. These tools can help educational and other uses of networks by reducing the cognitive load on users.

Hypertextual message linking

Electronic messages are discrete units, even though they are often parts of ongoing discussion threads. Usually, a given user will be communicating about multiple threads of discourse at any one time. For a user that receives a large number of messages, this makes it difficult to keep track of these different threads, or to pull together those topics that are conceptually linked. For these reasons, we have added hypertextual tools for interlinking messages into the Message Assistant. For the purposes of connecting messages, Message Assistant is designed to hypertextually link messages according to various themes or agenda.

Currently, there are two types of hypertextual linking mechanisms: fixed and dynamic links. Whenever the users reply or forward a message, a fixed link between two messages is created by default. This helps to maintain a "thread of discourse." However, any link can be created among messages that share a common topic, theme or other conceptual issue. Figure 3 shows a sample screen of linked messages.

Figure 3. A electronic message interwoven by the hypertextual links of Message Assistant.

Advantages and disadvantages of the Message Assistant

Developing a fast prototype usually reveals issues concerning the design and implementation of an application. As we have experienced in several stages where we added several advanced features, we have noticed strengths and weaknesses in HyperCard as a programming environment. As a part of formative evaluation of the software, it is worth reporting those issues for future development.


In Macintosh programming environment, HyperCard is best suited for the fast prototyping of software because of its rich interface design and natural language-like HyperTalk programming language. Moreover, the current version of HyperCard (now 2.2) has built-in AppleScript functionality which enables HyperCard to intercommunicate with other AppleScript-able applications. Another advantage is that it is easy to develop hypertext-related software since HyperCard is hypertextually oriented. With all of these features, the Message Assistant has been evolved smoothly as a communication tool.


However, we have suffered from several drawbacks of using HyperCard to maintain Message Assistant. First, the execution speed is low especially when several rules are applied to many messages. Second, there is a fixed 32K limit for a text in a given field. Another minor limitation is that HyperCard doesn't have hierarchical menus.


In this paper, we have described a prototype of communication software, the Message Assistant, which is still an on-going project. Several features of the software are designed to assist network users to easily manipulate electronic messages delivered from either FrEdMail or an Internet connection. Several distinct features of Message Assistant enable users to easily organize large message sets as well as to construct a hypertextual message set into a knowledge space according to user-specified views and links. Some issues on designing and programming a prototype have been raised in connection with using HyperCard as a software development environment. Even though the Message Assistant turns out to be slow in applying several rules to large message sets, it has several versatile mechanisms so that Message Assistant can be served as a communication tool in educational communities.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. RED-9253423. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We would like to thank Matthew Stuve and Doug Uno for their comments on the work reported in this paper.