Operating environment

eCampus On-line University has a technological educational environment, characterized by high modularity and flexibility of the service fruition by the students, the management of the courses and of the teaching materials.

The platform: Functions

We guarantee the following functions.

  • Lessons. Teaching material divided into lessons composed of activities and study sessions. The production of these materials and more generally the production of educational contents is entrusted to teachers. The University offers to its teachers the instruments to support the planning of their own teaching materials. One of these instruments is the program called EPPI (Editor Per la Progettazione degli Insegnamenti- Editor for the planning of the teachings) that guides the teacher in the creation of his/her lessons. EPPI helps the teacher for the macro- and micro-planning of the Teaching, finally allowing him/her to upload the files of his/her teaching materials on the e-Learning platform. The student accesses the lessons on the basis of a programmed educational path, which is personalised and agreed in advance with his/her tutor.

  • Tests. The lesson can be accompanied by initial, ongoing and final tests, that can be made binding on subsequent lessons. The tests are generated on the platform and corrections and assessments can take place even on-line.

  • Monitoring. It allows the tracking of the students' on-line activities, whether pertaining the access to contents (date and time of login, accomplished path, time of stay, date and time of logout), the asynchronous activities (registration, number of interventions, date and time of every login, documents put in the backpack), the synchronous activities (registration, participation) and the related evaluation of the student's performance by the event moderator (questions, answers, start and end date of the test, time of fulfillment, achieved or given mark).

  • Student management. For the registration and management of the students.

  • Personal Home Page. The communication interface presented through the Web Browser is the point of contact between the University and the student. Each student has his/her own reserved area.

  • Email. Students and teachers/tutors have their own mailbox.

  • Forum. Students, teachers and tutors can suggest subject matters for discussions and interact on different topics.

  • Backpack. It allows the students to manage materials for private use and/or send them to the teacher and/or tutor of the course. The backpack is a private environment of 'file management', that permits to attach documents, notes, lecture notes that can be displayed and downloaded by the single user “owner” of the space and/or by possible authorized roles/figures.

  • Chat. It allows a synchronous communication among many students.

  • On-line guide. Instructions about the use of the platform, for the resolution of little questions about how to move in the environment of educational collaboration.

2.2 The platform: technological features

In order to access the platform, only the standard ports relative to standard protocols HTTP, HTTPS, FTP, SMTP are required.

2.2.1 Systems and languages

The chosen environment for the functioning of the platform is constituted by an hybrid system based on Windows 2003 Server and Linux in virtual platform VmWare ESX, scripting languages ASP e PHP, databases Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL and PostGres.
Such configuration, widespread and tested in the field of IT applications, is particularly remarkable because, employing different technologies, it commits specific functional tasks to specific architectural subsets.
This leads to the benefit of the most efficient and stable subset for each functionality.
The code writing was thought since the first line for an easy maintenance and reuse.
To a core, representing the heart of the system, belong different modules which define its functions (for example: mail, forum, SCORM viewer); core and modules dialogue through dedicated APIs.
The system is designed following a modular logic and every module is plugged by creating a directory in which the files are contained, making it easier to maintain, update, cooperate for the construction of new functions and the expandability of the system.

Within the module can be included the files that define:

  • The language with which the module can be used;

  • the enabling restrictions to which the module is submitted in absolute (for example, data mining that only the platform administrator can enable);

  • the enabling restrictions to which the module or part of it can be submitted in a relative way, leaving to the administrator of the platform the possibility, through dedicated interface, to define the final licence for single students (or groups of students).

Functional profiles

The platform contains standard functional profiles to which specific licences correspond: administrator, teacher, tutor, student, administrative office. Beyond the possibility to define the licences of these standard profiles, it is possible to create new profiles with particular tasks.

Course fruition/Transmission of the information to the student

With the inclusion of the tripartion code / structure / presentation, we obtain maximum flexibility because not only web pages, but also structured information in the form of XML files are sent. This allows an easy reading by the browser, but opens the system to be read by other devices, the transmission towards different kinds of presentations (DTT, video-telephony, wap), to future applications (for example, presentation with CSS3). The change in presentation graphics is much easier thanks to the separation of the presentation, allowing the possibility to have different graphical views depending on the time of the day, the season, or special events.

Course/material/course structure management

The platform allows to manage the courses:

  • by importing them already in a SCORM format, by extracting information from the XML file;

  • by creating them from scratch. In this case the created courses undergo a packaging treatment that transforms them automatically into SCORM courses.

In this way every course/educational material is managed following the same specifications, ensuring re-usability and compatibility.

Educational materials

A special container (Repository) enables you to collect materials related to the courses and, later, to combine them with new learning experiences. The organization of the courses, according to particular ADL / SCORM specifications described in the XML file, allows the evolution of the system towards the integration with other sources of educational materials through metadata harvesting protocols (that is, OAI-MHP).

2.2.2 Supported databases

The system uses a database abstraction layer mechanism allowing the use of more database systems. The used abstraction layer is ADOdb (http://adodb.sourceforge.net/), that allows not only the description of the database but also the description of the types of data which have been processed (metatype).

2.2.3 Infrastructure

The eCampus University 'e-learning Service Centre', after an analysis of the services it has to perform and the following operational capacity of the e-learning infrastructure, established the fundamental features of the latter, in particular:

  • modular architecture,

  • scalability,

  • the ability to optimize both intensive workloads and more modest uses.

The conceptual and physical framework of our e-learning infrastructure can be represented as in the graph below.

During the implementation of the infrastructure, in order to guarantee scalability, both in terms of processing capacity and in terms of storage, the most efficient technologies have been adopted, specializing, for every role, the components responsible for the elaboration - e-mail server; Data Base Server; Web Server, including the services of the platform; Specialized server for virtual classrooms - and using NAS (Network Attached Storage) and SAN architectures, considered ideal for modular storage systems.

This type of infrastructure, combined with the technology of the Web Service software, allows a constant adjustment (of the production capacity of the system) to the increment of the users by simply adding processing units to the saturated role and increasing the storage size.

During the implementation we also evaluated -in terms of cost/benefit- the processing infrastructures, known as Blade, which are consistent with the need to make every processing role described above modular and expandable.

We highlight that the management services of the computer infrastructure of eCampus On-line University are provided in 'result obligation'.

The Service Level Management guarantees the control of the quality and quantity of the provided services, on the basis of an agreement between the e-learning Service Centre and the University as a whole (similar to the traditional agreement between supplier and customer of a service) in which each type of delivery is clearly specified in all its aspects.

Definitions

For each service element of interest we have defined the infrastructure, the time of measurement, the metrics and the performance aim.

Infrastructure. It is the set of components of the operating environment necessary to provide the service element under observation.

Time of measurement. It is the period of time over which you can measure the service level. This period, for some elements of the service, can come to include 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.

We also defined the Metrics for measuring the element of service. By way of example, the availability of the delivery system is measured with the following formula:

                                  hours of actual service in the month

System availability = ——————————————————— x 100

                                  service hours scheduled in the month

 

where 'service hours scheduled in the month' are the total hours defined within the agreed time of measurement and where the 'hours of actual service in the month' are calculated as the difference between the 'scheduled hours' and the amount of 'non-availability' hours of the infrastructure.

'Non-availability' means a malfunctioning that prevents the user from acting on the infrastructure in use.

In the end each Metric corresponds to a reference aim performance. In our example, the availability of the system, measured on a monthly basis, must be at least 99.5%.

In summary, our e-learning system enables the supply of services to any number of users and to manage virtual classrooms of any entity, ensuring a 24/7 availability.

Compatibility with client Browsers and operating systems

The platform is compatible with a wide range of updated operating systems and of browsers on the market. Here is a list.

Operating systems:
Windows (98se, 2000, XP, Vista, Windows7)
Macintosh (Mac OS, Mac OS X 10.x)
Linux
Solaris

Browser:
Internet Explorer 5.0 and later
Netscape Navigator 7.1 and later
AOL 9 and later
Mozilla Firefox 2 and later
Safari

2.2.4 Supported authentication procedures

The system bases the authentication mainly on the data in the database. The mechanisms that allow the integration of additional authentication directories are also present. For example, the LDAP authentication module allows you to check if a student is present in the central LDAP directory service and, if so, to check the correctness of the password to proceed with the access to the platform. In this case, all the data of the student, like, for example, the time of use or the personalized settings of access to the platform, are stored in the database of the platform itself, delegating to the central LDAP system only the authentication of the student.

The system, if necessary, also allows mechanisms of data and connection encryption through the https protocol.

2.3 Content creation and virtual classrooms

As anticipated, the functions not specifically addressed by the platform are provided by a third-party software. Among them, the function performed by Articulate Presenter is particularly important. As a matter of fact, the latter makes it possible to produce quickly specific Scorm Packages for on-line training by converting widespread formats, such as Microsoft Office package, for example.

The management features of the virtual classrooms are absolved by the open-source software DimDim: a stable product, tested and already successfully used by several universities.

2.3.1 Articulate Presenter, the author environment

Articulate Presenter is an author environment that allows, even to non-technical users, to create educationally effective, communicatively rich and always usable contents, without ever quitting PowerPoint.

Articulate Presenter converts presentations to Macromedia Flash format, a standard de facto present in 98% of the browsers, eliminating all barriers of access to content.

The main features of Articulate Presenter are:

  • visualization of rich and engaging presentations, accompanied by sound;

  • easy content creation, even by non-technical users;

  • control of file size;

  • flexible publishing options. The contents can be published locally or directly on a Breeze server to visualize the preview or create an auto-start file for their use on CD-ROM;

  • possibility to equip the slides with notes, synchronized with audio;

  • possibility of converting the presentations in any language;

  • possibility to add depths to the content of the presentation by inserting links to files of any type or links to external sites;

  • personalization of the presentation display mode;

  • availability of standard presentations, which can be reused in time;

  • presentation of films;

  • preparation of tests and their evaluation;

  • SCORM and AICC support. Breeze presentations can originate a SCORM and AICC compliant content, to be distributed and monitored through the Learning Management System. It's unique for its ability to create a Learning Object that supports SCORM 1.2, SCORM 2004, AICC, and Breeze Training. This means that the content of Articulate Presenter can be published once and later used within many systems.

2.3.2 DimDim, the virtual classroom

DimDim allows live on-line meetings, virtual courses and the cooperation among work teams, permitting to the educational structure to distribute a wide range of contents.

Participants can contact each other through chat, screen sharing, file sharing, application sharing, multi-point films, virtual boards and polls. Tutors can choose to allow the interaction of the single participants with presentations, including the possibility for each participant to take incorporated tests.

The features of the Meeting module are:

  • the organization of the virtual classroom that is always available, with all notes, contents and chat still intact;

  • Apple Macintosh support. DimDim meetings are fully supported for Mac OS X 10.2 and 10.3 users;

  • desktop and application sharing. Teachers and tutors can enlarge the viewing area for shared applications, documents and virtual board, in order to fill the entire screen of the participants. They can also choose to synchronize the visualization of all students;

  • management of the participants. Teachers can see every person connected to the virtual classroom, identifying his/her role and ongoing activities;

  • possibility to organize audio-conferences;

  • shared visualization of documents;

  • recording of lessons. It allows you to record lessons, including synchronized audio. The participants can use the index of the lessons to browse directly to the content they find more relevant, in a faster way;

  • lesson reports. It provides detailed statistics on the lesson and on the students in order to assess their participation;

  • template of the virtual classroom. The layout of the different virtual classrooms and their contents can be saved as a template (standard models) to be reused later, remaining available to both the single user and the entire system. The content saved in templates becomes instantly available for new virtual classrooms;

  • full integration with the eCampus platform;

  • moderated question and answer sessions in chat room;

  • multiple teachers. Many teachers can make content provision, private chatting, virtual boarding, and 'behind the scenes' layout personalization, while the lesson continues.

  • video conference from many locations;

  • survey. Teachers can collect real-time feedback through surveys;

  • virtual board and annotation tools. It allows to adds notes by sharing the screen and using standard tools or personalized annotation forms.

2.4 Access systems

The predominant use of new technologies, and the complexity of the activities that eCampus University has to carry out, involves the use of many applications and the multiplication of access points. Hence the need to define and keep the profile of people who can access the various resources of the system, ensuring a proper use, for obvious reasons of safety and licence control.

For this reason eCampus University has adopted an Identity & Access Management system that allows a refined cataloguing of the service use profiles (profiling), concentrating in a single infrastructure the management of all access policies to different applications and functions (Single Sign On).

The choice of the technological solution on which to base the Identity & Access Management system was made after an analysis of the numerous offers of the market, based on the detail specifications of eCampus University information system. By this same logic we are considering the introduction of strong authentication tools, through the use of digital certificates on smart cards or biometric recognition, in order to deliver further, better personalized services, to meet the different needs of students and professionals.

2.5 Accessibility for the disabled

As regards the standards of accessibility for people with disabilities, the development of the e-learning infrastructure of e-Campus University refers to the standards of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which constitute the reference standards also for our legislator.

Aware that the ease of access depends on several technological and planning factors, not least the cognizance of the developers of Internet instrumentations, the University started a specific research project in 2010.