The UIUC Learning Resource Server: Year Two Progress Report

Matthew Stuve and Jim Levin

Teaching TeleApprenticeships Board of Advisors Meeting

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

June 17, 1994

Abstract

The Learning Research Server (LRS) is a suite of TCP/IP and AppleTalk-based information servers running on a single Macintosh computer. This project is a component of the original Teaching TeleApprenticeships (TTA) NSF proposal written by Jim Levin and Michael Waugh. It was originally envisioned to disseminate "learning resources" within the TTA community. However, as newer server technologies have emerged since the original TTA proposal, the LRS has taken on additional roles and functionality. This report will describe the concept behind the design and evolution of the LRS and examine its use using preliminary Gopher server activity data.

A shared knowledge space for teaching teleapprentices

The theoretical model for an LRS was first articulated as a "distributed network learning framework" (Levin & Jacobson, 1992) and later extended to the concept of "shared knowledge spaces" (Jacobson & Levin, 1993). Shared knowledge spaces are based on a spatial relationship between the objects of knowledge (resources) on a network and the community of people who construct and use those knowledge resources. The LRS can be thought of as a preliminary realization of a shared knowledge space because it serves electronic resources (documents, software, images, sounds, databases, etc.) for the distributed community of teachers, students and educational researchers on the Internet, as well as the specific community of pre-and in-service teachers involved with the TTA project.

The LRS was originally proposed as being one of many tools to make it easier for participants in the TTA project to access shared information. This information could be any number of resources relevant to or originating from primarily math and science educational activities. These resources could be in the form of activity plans, address information of experts, background information, simulation models, software tools, and links to other resources on other servers. It was also originally proposed to archive the dialog of TTA participants on a wide-area information server which would contain knowledge, directory information, software tools, and other curricular resources. In this way, the community of TTA participants could construct a knowledge base that would be particularly appropriate for teachers and teacher educators, and that could be dynamically updated.

The LRS can serve to mediate distributed problem solving activities that require interaction with real data sets (Levin, 1994). Science education projects like Grand and Everyday Challenges and the Noon Observation projects are already being implemented on the LRS. The TCP/IP servers of the LRS, the Gopher and World Wide Web (WWW) servers, can be forums in which problems and educational challenges are posted by learners from around the world. Then, classrooms or "webs" of classrooms can interact with the servers to access and share resources necessary for solving the problems.

As a suite of servers, then, the LRS can function as an all-purpose educational server that meets the needs of numerous, perhaps overlapping, communities of teachers and learners. The LRS is both a window on communities of learners as well as shared knowledge space.

Realization of the LRS: A Composite Desktop Server

We are realizing some initial success with the smorgasbord approach to server development. The LRS has been presented at several conferences, including most recently at AACTE, and GopherCon (Stuve, 1994). This Fall it will be the focus of a workshop at Tel-Ed '94. The LRS has also been recognized as an exemplary server by evidence of the links to it from comprehensive large-scale information servers, including those operated by EDUCOM, Gopher Jewels (USC), InterNIC, and America Online.

So now that people have found out about the existence of the LRS, we are at a point where we can take a more pro-active role in implementing many of the proposed learning and teacher education activities on a larger scale. More than just connecting to the server, teachers' needs dictate what goes on and what stays. Indeed, many of the resources on the LRS are provided by teachers. We have reached a critical mass of teachers who are familiar with the server and we have a substantial set of resources in place with which to attract new resources from the various educational communities that rely on the LRS.

Although the LRS makes use of numerous channels for communication (AppleTalk, TCP/IP, modem) and server technologies (AppleShare, Gopher, WWW, FTP), it is intended that the services each channel/server provides will be coordinated with the other servers so that each server is featured in its best light. We do not intend on replicating all services on all servers. The role that each server has with respect to the TTA projects is evolving over time. At the present time, only the Gopher and WWW servers are intended for a global audience. The AppleShare and an FTP servers are intended for people associated with the TTA project only. All servers also function to disseminate information about the TTA project.

Central to the notion of a shared knowledge space is that it is constructed jointly by the users themselves. In that regard, the LRS relies on resources provided by College of Education faculty, local teachers, graduate students, undergraduate students and other researchers on the Internet. This is facilitated by direct server access via AppleTalk for those providers that have been given access to the LRS servers. We expect to expand the cadre of providers of local resources (files stored on the actual LRS hard drives) in the coming year. Furthermore, we expect to add links to other Internet resources as they pertain to the activities of the TTA participants and researchers.

Gopher Server. The LRS runs on a Macintosh Workgroup Server model 60. The LRS Gopher server (gopher.ed.uiuc.edu) first went on the "net" in November of 1992. It wasn't until Fall of 1993 when UMN released a version of the Macintosh Gopher Server software, version 1.0b3, that could capture server activity. This feature had some limitations and data collection was severely impaired. However, with the release of version 1.0b5 in January, 1994, server activity could be reliably and continuously collected. Activity since this release date will be the focus of our analysis of LRS usage later in this report.

Currently there are approximately 1000 files on the server, consuming over 19 MB of disk space. approximately 80 of those files are external links to other Gopher resources on the Internet. Approximately another 50 files are Gopher alias files which consist of display name information for some folders and documents on the local server.

The organization scheme of the resources on the Gopher Server was completely overhauled in January of 1994. It was then that we clustered the resources along the following six themes:

1. Welcome messages and information about the LRS

2. Resources pertaining to the needs of in-service teachers and students in K-12 classrooms

3. Resources pertaining to the needs of pre-service teachers (including TTA participants)

4. Resources pertaining to the College of Education and other organizations serving higher education

5. General Internet resources such as navigation information, directories, documentation, etc.

6. Resources pertaining to national and state information infrastructures

AppleShare Server. AppleShare is a higher performance version of the built-in file-sharing capabilities of the Macintosh operating system. The AppleShare server, called the TeleApprentices Server, serves the documentation and support needs of the researchers and staff of the Teaching TeleApprenticeships projects. It uses AppleTalk communication protocols so it is available via the campus backbone network as well as via Apple Remote Access (ARA) so users can connect to the server via modem. Currently, only TTA personnel have accounts on the TeleApprentices server. The server contains shared work-in-progress, distributible software pertaining to the TTA projects, and archives of relevant documents and other TTA support resources.

AppleSearch Engine. Many of the resources of the TTA AppleShare server as well as the Gopher server described earlier have been indexed in AppleSearch. AppleSearch is a full text search and retrieval system that operates much like a WAIS database. AppleSearch clients have been installed on TTA computers so that users can search the archives of the TTA server remotely via an AppleTalk connection. Furthermore, since the Macintosh version of the Gopher server supports AppleSearch, various folders on the LRS Gopher server have been indexed. However, the current implementation of Gopher Surfer is somewhat limited in its use of AppleSearch. Because of this, we await future versions of the Gopher Surfer software so that we can provide users of the LRS with keyword search capabilities of resources on the Gopher server.

World Wide Web Server. Although HTML home pages describing the TTA project were written by Yee-Rong Lai during April and May of 1994, the WWW server (MacHTTP) was not set up until June 10, 1994. The URL for the TTA home page is http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/TTA/TTA-home.html.

Preliminary evaluation of the LRS

In the long term, we are interested in who is using the LRS, what resources they are using, their navigation of the server, and the frequencies and patterns of use. Each of the servers of the LRS log server activity so that we will be able to answer such questions in the future. It was originally proposed that the LRS be demand driven, in that resources would be added, updated, and/or deleted based on the actual usage by the intended audience. Analysis of server logs will help us determine the direction of development of the LRS. At the present time, we only have a substantial amount of date for the Gopher server. It collects the following information from the client upon connection to the server:

1. Connect order (an integer)

2. The date and time of the connection or access of a particular resource

3. The IP address or domain name of the client (if the latter exists)

4. The resource accessed

5. Any action taken on that resource

For the purposes of this report, we will explore the data pertaining to the IP and Action field in the server log database:

IP Analysis. To find out who is using the LRS, we conducted frequency analyses on the IP (and domain name) data archived on a weekly basis from January 28 to June 11, 1994. We have filtered out testing connections by researchers closely associated with the LRS. We have also filtered out IP addresses for which we do not know the domain. Then, we conducted frequency analyses for connections from four groups of users: College of Education addresses (ED), UIUC addresses (UIUC), domain names from the United States (US), and records with "k12" anywhere in the domain names. The ED data is a subset of UIUC data, which is a subset of US data. The K-12 data is quite incomplete at the moment. Table 1 shows a the number of connections to the Gopher server for each week.

Table 1. Weekly frequencies of Gopher connections as indicated by the client's IP address.

Notes:

1. Partial week in which the new server software was installed.

2. Spring break at UIUC.

3. The week of AERA. Due to technical problems, the server was down most of the week.

4. The values for Jan. 28 and Apr. 3 were not included in the calculations for the mean and standard deviation.

Figure 1 shows the frequency of UIUC and US activity over time as measured by the client's IP address. It is too early to make significant claims about trends or phenomena in the data, but we hope to continue this analysis in order to collect data that will explain the rise in activity after the "AERA lull". Due to technical problems, the LRS was down most of the week we were at AERA in April. The following week we noticed a substantial rise in server activity from all groups (College of Ed., UIUC, and US) in equal proportions.

Figure 2 shows the relative frequencies of College of Ed., UIUC, and US activity. Note the slight downward trend in activity in UIUC activity versus US activity between January and June. Again, it must be stated that more data needs to be analyzed before we can completely explain this phenomenon.

Figure 1. Histogram of US and UIUC connections.

Figure 2. Weekly percentages of Gopher connections from College of Education, UIUC, and US Internet addresses

Action Analysis. There are thousands of Gopher servers on the Internet. Many users "cruise" the Internet for many reasons, often out of boredom. We want to determine to what extent our LRS is being used intentionally and for what purposes. We hope to be able to measure the instructional use of the server, but, until further analyses are complete, one primitive measure of "goal-directed" use of the Gopher server is the number of Gopher "action requests" or what we will call actions. Actions can be: 1) viewing a document; 2) transferring a file or document; 3) queries of server or resource attributes, or 4) changing to an alternate view of the resource. When connections are followed by no actions, we can assume that the user is, at best, browsing the server. Sometime the client enters the server at the main level, other times they enter at a level deeper in the directory structure (probably with bookmarks or links from other Gopher servers). Actions can follow either type of server entry. When an action occurs, then, we have a rough indication that the resource was intentionally accessed and, perhaps, has value to the user.

Table 2 shows the frequencies of client actions on the server. The "Gross" column represents the total connections to the server without anything filtered out. The "Att." columns represents server and item attribute queries. The "Trans." columns represent item displays and file transfers. The Total of attribute queries and item transfers forms a rough estimate of intentional actions on the Gopher server by all clients. Further filtering of this data (for TTA personnel) is necessary before definitive claims can be made regarding client use of LRS resources.

Table 2. Frequencies and relative frequencies of client "Actions" on the Gopher server. Note: The values for Jan. 29 and Apr. 3 were not included in the calculations for the mean and standard deviations.

Future research and development

The upcoming year will see continued development of the features and resources of the LRS. In addition to the construction of the LRS, we now have more sources of data with which we can analyze the effect of the LRS on the TTA project and other learning communities. Along with the Gopher server data, the WWW server will be producing activity logs of its own. The WWW server will offer a significantly different approach to shared knowledge construction within the TTA project. Thus, we have two models of interaction to compare: the file-oriented, menu-displayed interactions of Gopher vs. the hypertextually navigated learning resources of the WWW server. Towards this goal, the current summer workshops will help to create a cadre of local teachers who are more experienced with the specific offerings of the LRS as well as being trained in HTML document creation.

Other areas of future research include:

* Continued analysis of IP and Action data

* Analysis of LRS resource data

* Navigation traces of menu items

* Descriptive evaluations of the situated activities of resource providers

* Client-oriented analyses

In addition to serving the on-going needs of the TTA projects, an outcome of the LRS will be models for implementing such technologies in K-12 settings and describing the potential benefits to learning and teacher education.

References

Jacobson, M. J., & Levin, J. A. (1993). Network learning environments and hypertext: Constructing personal and shared knowledge spaces. Proceedings of the Tel-Ed Conference on Global Connections, Austin, TX.

Levin, J. A. (1994, April). Network learning communities: Educational goals and mediator roles. Paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Levin, J. A., & Jacobson, M. J. (1992). Towards a distributed network learning framework: Theory and technology to support educational electronic learning environments. Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 927-932). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stuve, M. J. (1994, April). Using Gopher as a learning resource server. Paper presented at GopherCon '94, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.