Intranets in Education
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Published on: Saturday 5th December 1998 By: Pankaj Kamthan
The Intranet Design Magazine defines an Intranet as:
In'tra net - n. 1) a network connecting an affiliated set of clients using standard internet protocols, esp. TCP/IP and HTTP. 2) an IP-based network of
nodes behind a firewall, or behind several firewalls connected by secure, possibly virtual, networks.
An intranet is essentially an Internet contained within an organization. Some characteristics of an Intranet are:
- Contained. An Intranet typically is a local area network (LAN) or a Wide Area Network (WAN) within an organization.
- Shielded. An Intranet offers the "common language" of the Internet without the loss of privacy of the Internet.
- Gated. An Intranet can be connected via gateways to selected Internet content or access.
- Functional. An Intranet is a fully operational network for organization-wide communication, information, and interaction.
Intranets have been rapidly growing in the business world in the last few years but are still in their infancy in educational institutions. The purpose
of this article is to give an introduction to Intranets, point out the advantages they can offer (over using an Internet), and present a realistic
example with possible applications. We hope that this work will intill interest in the educational community and motivate them to establish Intranets
in their institutions.
By an Intranet in Education we mean the deployment of Intranet-based technologies in an educational institution such as a
School/College/University. The basic ideas presented here, however, are applicable to other (non-profit and commerical) organizations which have
educational divisions to train their employees.
To be or not to be on an Intranet ...
There are various questions that need to be asked (and answered to a sufficient extent) prior to deployment of an Intranet. The basic ones are related
to motivation: Why do we need an Intranet? What are its benefits?
The key determinant of the value of establishing an Intranet, is an institution's information needs. In general, Intranets can be are most useful to
- Are geographically dispersed.
- Share common educational views and objectives.
- Have common information/communication needs.
- Value collaboration.
- Are strongly concerned about their information security and privacy.
It might not be justifiable for every institution to deploy an Intranet. For example, a small school operating from a single location,
may exchange local information more than adequately through non-electronic means (memos, meetings). It may use the Internet as a resource for gathering
information, but probably doesn't need an Intranet (and the specific advantages it offers). On the other hand, a University with multiple campuses in
different locations and thousands of students, could have the information needs that may benefit significantly from implementing its own Intranet.
Advantages Of An Educational Intranet
There are several advantages (which have been behind the success of the Internet) in creating an educational Intranet:
- Freedom of Choice. WWW technology is based on open standards and is available for nearly all widely used hardware platforms and operating systems. It therefore doesn't compel institutions into limited, proprietary choices.
- Ease-of-Use. With Intranet clients (browsers), a single front-end can be used to access all internal and external resources; users don't need to learn multiple software packages.
- Cost-Effectiveness. Intranet tools are inexpensive in initial purchase and deployment. A variety of client and servers-side software is almost free for academic or non-commercial use. The Intranet's platform-independence usually eliminates the need to create different versions of the same application. Setting-up an Intranet can save resources. For example, office and phone directories can be made available in an electronic form on the Intranet, instead of printing them.
- Asynchronous Global Information. Information can be accessed any time and anywhere, thus overcoming the time and space dependent limitations.
- Universal Communication. With proper authorization, an individual on an Intranet can interact with any other individual, and beyond with outside world.
- Publishing. Through multimedia support, the WWW technology offers a complete environment for publishing information in dynamic form. Hypermedia makes this information reusable by instant referencing.
- Reliability. Internet technology is proven, highly robust and reliable.
- Standards. The adoption of standard protocols and APIs allows infrastructures to be built and managed to meet changing technological needs in an educational environment without substantial overhead. As an example, educational institutions typically have a variety of clients, including Macintoshes, PCs, UNIX systems, and even mainframes. By implementing Intranet technologies, the problems with sharing data between systems become largely nonexistent - TCP/IP can become the common backbone protocol and HTTP can be the data delivery mechanism protocol.
Intranet Vs. Internet
Internet defines the technologies available for external communication, whereas the Intranet is the application of these technologies
within an organization. There are, however, various advantages of setting-up an educational Intranet over using the Internet:
- Flexibility. Even though an Intranet used Internet-based technologies, it doesn't need to conform to a certain design and engineering considerations that are sometimes expected (and even required) on the Internet. The power of the Internet can be applied with flexibility to individual institutional requirements.
- Accessibility. By making available necessary information locally gives independency. External sites may change addresses without notice, or when access is really needed, their servers may be unavailable.
- Reliability. Since anybody can publish information on the Internet, anybody does. Such information often does not go through any measure (for example, editorial check) of reliability (such as, correctness, relevance), consequences of which can be potentially damaging if used without caution. By making necessary information available within an institution such problems can be overcome to a large extent.
- Maintainability. Even if required information is accessible, it may get out-of-date. By setting-up and maintaining an internal WWW site, one can be assured of up-to-date information.
- Efficiency. It is important to find means of improving the mechanics of information exchange by overcoming logistical obstacles to gather and disseminate necessary information in a timely manner. Speed has always been one of the limitations of the WWW since its inception to the extent that it has been called as "World-Wide Wait". Accessing external servers can be slow at times when performance is really needed, such as during a real-time class presentation or seminar demonstration. An Intranet (for example, on a fast Ethernet connection) resolves this problem to a large extent.
- Security. Protecting information, even within an educational network, is critical. Intranets are protected by a firewall, a network configuration usually created by hardware and software, that forms a boundary between networked computers within the firewall from those outside the firewall. For Internet access, Intranets rely on proxy servers, a special server that typically runs in conjunction with a firewall and allows access to the Internet from within the firewall. This enables institutions to make only necessary information available to the outside world (based on means of priviledged access, such as username/password-based authentication) thereby avoiding the problems of security breach, server overload and access of illegal or age-specific information (in case of students that are minors).
- Support. It is relatively easier to obtain support when the information is made available locally than to depend on external contacts, which may or may not be available/respond, or may not give support a priority.
- Learning. Research has shown that learning takes place based on previous knowledge. Since information on an Intranet can be control, the same "look-and-feel" can be provided, for example, to all aspects of a WWW site (such as documents styles, navigation systems, or search engines). This can help the user to focus on learning the content of the subject under study rather than trying to learn these aspects of each and ever site he/she visits. By setting-up an environment on a smaller scale (Intranet), also gives the students an opportunity to develop their skills and protocol to communicate on a larger scale (Internet).
If you build it, they will come
This section given an overview of the issues that should be taken into consideration and addressed in planning the evolution of an Intranet.
The goals for an Intranet may be vary: modest or ambitious, specific or broad. Regardless of what the goals may be, it is important is that they be
defined clearly and early. As with any other major initiative, an institution need ask itself some fundamental questions before
embarking on establishing an Intranet:
- What do we want to accomplish by establishing an Intranet? This helps establish a target and a focus for developing the Intranet.
- Why do we want to accomplish it? This is motivational. The list of advantages of establishing an Intranet can help answer this question.
Then, there are certain questions related to the Intranet infrastructure and its users.
- Who are the intended users of the Intranet? The universe of potential users can be as broad or as narrow as the institution requires. It may be defined, for example, as "all staff" or "all faculty and students in a Department." The design of an Intranet should be carried out appropriately.
- What are their information needs? Understanding how the institution routinely exchanges information internally and externally, and the communication medium it uses, helps reveal gaps and obstacles that an Intranet can be used to address. It can also helps suggest opportunities for using the Intranet to better meet the needs of the users.
- How do we expect the users to use the Intranet? User interaction with an Intranet will vary considerably, depending on the its functions and the user's needs. Knowing more about each user group and integrating that accordingly into the user-interface design of information on the Intranet is important. It can help assure availability of information that meets the needs and expectations of each group.
- What do the users need in order to use it? An evaluation of user expertise would be needed, and if required, basic training may be necessary.
One instance of an Intranet could be within a School/College/University Department as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Structure of a Departmental Intranet
The following are possible Intranet applications among the three components - faculty, staff, students - of the Department.
- Communication. E-mail for administrative inquiries, sending student class lists and student grades.
- Management/Administration. WWW pages for notices of meeting, calendars and schedules, listing of committee members, and minutes of recent meetings.
- Publishing. WWW documents for Department budget statements and progress reports.
- Course WWW Pages. General announcements; schedules for class, labs, office hours, examinations; course descriptions; links to lecture notes, slides, handouts; assignments and solutions; grades.
- Publishing. Lecture notes, student projects, research preprints, software tutorials, FAQs, help-desk documents, School/College/University calendar.
- Communication. E-mail for faculty-student (for course and program advising), student-student contact (to encourage peer interaction); local newsgroups specific to courses, for example, to provide hints to assignments, share questions and ideas; bulletin boards and chat rooms for discussions.
- Collaboration. Faculty and students can exchange information and share data when working on collaborative projects.
- Communication. WWW pages with class schedules, announcments of events (seminars, colloquia, conferences, talks/presentations, thesis defences) and important deadlines, career information and job advertisements.
- Announcements. General announcements on a WWW-based bulletin-board.
- Publishing. Newsletters and magazines, phone directory, acceptable use policies (AUPs).
- Faculty/Staff/Student WWW Pages. Personal information. It can help one individual/group find common research and/or co-curricular interests, schedules of availablity, and preferred methods of contact of other individual/groups.
- Department WWW Pages. History, facilities, addresses, visitor information, vacation schedules, get-togethers.
- Communication. E-mail and finger gateways, local newsgroups.
- Searching Information. Search engines for accessing local information such as institutional library, phone directory and e-mail addresses.
Such a model is not artificial and is in use at many large institutions (see the case studies in References). However, it is not as
widespread as it could be on a smaller scale.
Intranets offer tremendous potential for institutions that understand their potential, and apply discipline and resources to achieving it.
This potential is can be reached by defining goals early and planning with the support of a collaborative foundation. This can help avoid building an
Intranet that is valuable to a only few users and that even if you build it, they might not come. Understanding the strengths and limitations
of an Intranet's users can ensure that it offers value to all of them at various levels.
Islands of (Net) Learning
From a social perpective, we need to continue to conserve our natural (for example trees, the source of paper) and human resources (in terms of time,
effort and energy). From an educational viewpoint, we must continue to seek novel ways of using the technology to instruct, collaborate and communicate
with our students. Establishing an Intranet within an educational institution can create a - long-term, cost-effective, efficient, information-accurate,
and fruitful - teaching and learning environment.
I would like to thank Martin Webb for his critical reading of the draft and helpful comments.
These are some online magazines dedicated to Intranet technology with information on latest news, FAQs, tutorials, book and product reviews, and tools.
- Internal Use of the Web - Online seminar focussing on how companies are using the WWW in their internal information network.
- Intranet Resource Center - Reports, calendar of events, technology notes, online seminars about Intranets, from WebMaster Magazine.
- Intranet Solutions - Intranet case studies, press clippings, white papers, and demos that show how companies are using the Netscape platform for internal communication, applications, and collaboration.
Links Want To Be Links
What are RFCs
Looking for Something? : Searching the Web
Are all Portals the same?
Representation of Japanese Language Characters on the WWW
Rendering Chinese Language Characters on the World-Wide Web
Where is the Web heading?
WWW - How It All Begun
©2018 Martin Webb