The MANTCHI project: official project pages, or my summary
Stephen W. Draper
The original idea of an ATOM was that they would be based on some learner task (suitable for use in teaching other than primary exposition i.e. they do not replace lectures, but might replace tutorials or labs). They are supposed to be equivalent to about 6-8 hours of learner work i.e. one week's worth on a typical course. These units are being exchanged: each of the four HEIs are both authoring some and receiving others for use in their courses. The author designs the whole activity, and normally will commit to being available for responsive network interaction during delivery. The recipient teacher (the "deliverer") delivers the material, and remains responsible for local organisation, and assessment.
A second variant on the notion has collaboration between students at different HEIs as a feature. For instance video conferencing between HEIs is a natural exercise; and design and evaluation exercises where groups at different HEIs swap designs at the half way point and evaluate each others' is another. Such designs are good pedagogically but require coordination of teachers and timetables.
A third variant is an idea that might take place over a whole term as an ongoing minor activity: for instance a discussion forum for the students on a course, or an exercise requiring each student in turn to produce and publish model lecture notes for one lecture. These are exercises, and are of the right scale in terms of student time, but have a different relationship to the timetable.
The distinctive benefits of this small unit of exchange are:
Against these reasons for a small unit of exchange is a lot of pressure from authors to cram in more material, and to design bigger chunks with more internal structure. The EUROMET project is experiencing this tension too.
In fact the time an ATOM "should" take shows several factors: hours of work by students, elapsed time i.e. the time over which the work is spread to allow students both to manage their own time and to do some reflection rather than handing work in the moment it is done, and authors' desire to provide lots of material and further directions.
Link to our working pages relating to ATOMs.
Link to a paper on the origin of the notion in the project
These are important questions for teachers. If students only learn from their own activity, then tutorial groups of more than one student simply waste students' time; but if they learn from others, then solo tutorials actually deprive students. Similarly, should we delete last year's email discussion or leave it for next year's students?
More on scenarios for using an Answer garden
If this is wrong, and learning by onlooking is enough, then tutorials could be filmed and shown instead of being performed next year. If this is right, then reusable material will not be a record of what happened, but instead a structure or script for teacher and learners to perform again next time.
There have been many studies of video conferencing in comparison to, say, telephoning, yet virtually all of them compare subjects with decades of experience of the phone to subjects with minutes of experience with video conferencing. It is not just that such experiments are poorly designed, and cannot tell us whether video adds value to audio. Rather, no-one yet knows how new media might best be used. We should not just seek "experts", but rather seek out the unusual subjects who happen to perform best, and seek to teach this best practice to other users before doing a study.
This applies equally forcefully to educational applications. Mass market textbooks have copious teacher materials to support its use, yet most CAL is still delivered as software alone, with the result that much of it fails mainly because suitable delivery techniques are not transmitted (or often not developed in the first place). This becomes even more important in the area we are in, such as organising discussions. It will not be the technical features of the software that have most influence, but the social organisation created by the teacher. This is true in face to face tutorials (where tutors vary enormously in their inter-personal and group skills), but is still more important in new media where good practice is still to be discovered. It is important not least because higher education is particularly poor at sharing good practice between staff in the same department, much less at greater (social) distances.
We must address ourselves to developing this practice -- the human social procedures for using the medium -- and then to how it can be transmitted to other teachers. That is the kind of reusable "material" that is crucial.
However our project may establish the need for substantial bandwidth in another way, as the cumulation of many small demands.
Most university internet traffic is currently communication between researchers. In some of our applications, we will be arranging for students at different HEIs to interact over the net. Since students outnumber staff by about 15 to 1, the need for a factor of 15 (a qualitatively greater bandwidth) is already clear. (Email student:student)
In other applications, a remote teacher who authored an ATOM will be providing substantial interactive backup over the net. This kind of intensive email is currently characteristic of traffic within a department, but here it will travel over the net. The ratio of department traffic to cross-HEI traffic is perhaps 1000 to 1, but includes research, teacher, and student interactions: let us just suppose that the part attributable to student-teacher interactions is 10 to 1. (Email student:teacher)
Not insignificant is the communication between collaborating teachers. If you look at your email (and now web page) traffic, then a substantial proportion is communication with collaborating teachers. Again, this is now all intra-department, but in our project will be cross-HEI. Perhaps another factor of 10. (Email teacher:teacher)
It therefore looks as if, simply using old technology of email and web pages for essentially intraweb applications, the move to collaborative teaching beyond one's department may require 1000 times more bandwidth on the internet if all teaching were to go this way. This is probably a greater exercise of the MANs than dabbling in video is, although our project will only show a few bursts, not what it would be like if all of our teaching were done remotely or as part of remote collaborations.
To give these guestimates some basis, we will need to analyse our web and email traffic, both over a few weeks of normal use, and in the periods of ATOM delivery.