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Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – An Integral Approach

Martin Ebner Computing and Information Services / Social Learning Graz University of Technology Graz, Austria

Nikolai Scerbakov Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media Graz University of Technology Graz, Austria

Behnam Taraghi Computing and Information Services / Social Learning Graz University of Technology Graz, Austria

Walther Nagler

Computing and Information Services / Social Learning Graz University of Technology Graz, Austria


Isidor Kamrat Computing and Information Services Graz University of Technology Graz, Austria

Abstract: This paper presents the IT- environment of Graz University of Technology for supporting learning and teaching processes. Bearing in mind that future education strongly bases on technology the focus of tomorrow will not be on the development of one big platform – it will be to build an appropriate environment to connect different services. The concept of TU Graz is the combination of mainly three big platforms – an administrative system (TUGRAZonline, a learning management syst em (TU Graz TeachCenter) and a blogosphere (TU Graz LearnLand). Due to the fact that teachers and learners need also a kind of monitoring, especially if the WorldWideWeb is an integrated part of the learning environment, the development of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) becomes indispensable. The paper describes the concept in detail as well as the used systems and points out the advantages of that IT- environment for the present as well as for the future.


The ubiquitous availability and pervasive use of the WorldWideWeb dominates our life more and more. People are communicating through social networks, are exchanging content, are creating new one just on demand and are collaborating across countries and without any boundaries. Since Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly, 2006) announced in 2005 for the first time the term Web 2.0 to describe a new way how users are dealing with the Internet interaction between users and users as well as users and content became a daily routine. Nowadays social networks are influencing our behavior – how we work, communicate and of course also learn. Stephen Downes (Downes, 2005) expressed the use

Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

of Web 2.0 technologies for learning and teaching purposes, e-Learning 2.0, as a change of the attitude and not as a technological revolution. Bearing in mind that since then lot of web based applications appeared and the educational potential are researched. Weblogs (Luca & McLouglin, 2005) (Farmer & Bartlegg - Bragg, 2005), podcasts (Evans, 2007) (Towned 2005), wiki (Augar et al, 2005) (Caddick, 2006) or social bookmarking systems are used to enhance the traditional teaching as well as learning strategies (Ebner, 2007 ). Due to the fact that using manifold tools in various ways new didactical approaches can be realized. Lecturers become EduPunks (Ebner, 2008 ) by enhancing creativity and freedom through their courses using different tools concerning their personal needs. If a closer look on a typical lecturer is done, it can be stated that because of the increasing technological possibilities a teacher of today has to handle also lot of different tools and platforms. On the one side there is a lot of administrative stuff, like scheduling each lecture, reserving of appropriate rooms or describing the lecture as whole. On the other side course material should be uploaded and further support must be planned and prepared so that appropriate tools can be used. Bearing this in mind it becomes a necessity to think about how we can support lecturers in a most effective way to allow innovative, modern teaching as well as optimization of the organization of each lecture. In this paper the environment established at Graz University of Technology is described to help teachers as well as students during their daily learning and teaching processes.

The TU Graz Teaching and Learning Service System

“The Power of the People”

With this mission statement the “Department for Social Learning” (Dept. SL) has been set into being on the 1st of September 2006 as a new department of the Computer and Information Services (CIS) of TU Graz. The Dept. SL is a service center for all internal and non profit external questions regarding e-Learning at the TU Graz whereas the focus is on the possibilities of networked based, communication guided teaching and learning processes to become sustained integrated into TU Graz. Computer Supported Collaborat ive Work – simply called e- Learning – is one chance to support the individuality of the learners study as well as to enable, coach and attend a customized offer of modern facilities for teachers to teach. This concept excellently fits into the principles of TU Graz to encourage its students und teachers with best didactical and up-to-date technological assistance for the study. To understand today’s TU Graz Teaching and Learning Service System displayed in Fig 1 it must be said that the different systems in use not only target different intents but also have different histories of origins. By now they are all connected to each other and complement each other but may work as standalone platforms as well. A couple of new features emerging from different proje cts are added to the system bit by bit when it is needed. So the system of portals and services is constantly growing. It has already reached a point of diversity that calls for a meta- layer for the user to manage it. This will be enabled by the so called TU Graz Personal Learning Environment (TU Graz PLE) in the very near future. A prototype of it already goes through evaluation phase (Taraghi et al, 2009a). The TU Graz PLE will include all the services on select and furthermore will allow the user to enlarge its personal learning environment by adding features and applications of own choice not necessarily belonging to the TU Graz. Within the TU Graz PLE the user is able to customize on base of personal requirements to optimize one’s online study life (Taraghi et al, 2009b). The basis of the whole system (besides the official TU Graz website 1 , which is not displayed in Fig 1) is the so - called “TUGRAZonline” portal. The TUGRAZonline portal – to be seen on the very bottom left side in Fig 1 – is meant for an y administration purposes providing structural, systemic and personal data as well as individual study or work management. It holds the central database of TU Graz and has been developed at the CIS. It basis on the internationally awarded university management software of the CIS, the “CAMPUSonline” – “EUNIS-Elite-Award” and “Award of the Austrian University Board” – which has been launched in 1998 and is now used at several universities and institutions of education in Austria and Germany. Another platform focuses on the content and communication related teacher’s demands as well as general university education, the so called “TU Graz TeachCenter” (TUGTC). The TUGTC bases on the so called “WBTmaster”-system that has been developed by the team of Prof. Nikolai Scerbakov at the Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media of TU Graz (IICM 2 ) since the later 1990s (Maurer & Scerbakov, 1996). In 2006 it became the official e-Learning platform of the TU Graz. It is directly connected to the TUGRAZonline system to get user’s and lecture’s data from the database when

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Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

needed. It is a highly flexibly and fast running system with an ultimate possibility to individualization. TUGTC will be discussed in the following chapter. The third platform concentrating on th e student’s study progress is called “ TU Graz LearnLand ” (TUGLL) (Ebner et al, 2007). It is a blogosphere offering since 2006 anybody with TUGRAZonline account (and also TU Graz related external people) a free blog -space with multiple setting opportunities and individualization again. The main aim of this system is to collect and share experiences and information of ones own study with colleges. It bases on the open source social networking and social publishing platform called ELGG 3 . The contents of TUGLL can be linked to other portals using ELGG for the benefit of both. For the Dept. SL does also research work in the field of e- Learning regarding to technological aspects and didactical scenarios a lot of in -house developments have been integrated to the TU Graz Teaching and Learning Service System. One of these developments is the CMS called “ABC- Manager” that is linked to the e-book system of the TUGTC (Nagler et al, 2007). Individual student projects or projects with institutes and other universities as w ell as a tight cooperation with the office for LifeLongLearning of TU Graz (Ebner, Fickert, Nagler & Stöckler-Penz 2007) top the initiatives of the Dept. SL.

Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education

Fig. 1 : System of portals and services in use at TU Graz for teaching and learning support. All connected to each other and managed by the user over the TU Graz Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (in near future).

In the following chapters the different parts of the TU Graz Teaching and Learning Service System are described more detailed.

TUGRAZonline – What is needed from an administration system?

TUGRAZonline ist the information management system of Graz University of Technology (Haselbacher, 2002). All relevant data of teaching and research for administration purpose are stored in that one big database. They are available for query and editing online directly generated from the database. For anonymous users of the system TUGRAZonline presents any information according teaching and research aspects of the TU Graz. For logged in users those data can be edited by any member of the TU Graz with individual graded authorization. Each member of the TUGraz, students, teachers, staff members as well as scientific employees have a distinct identified access to the


Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

system. This access can be reached with any established web browser. As mentioned before TUGRAZonline bases on a system called “CAMPUSonline” that has been developed by the Computer and Information Services (CIS) of TU Graz. It was launched in January 1998 and has been u pgraded constantly since then.

The concept of the system has three main guidelines regarding access and structuring of data:

The data get stored in one central database (ORACLE) for no complex adjustment between different databases is necessary. Each piece of data is unique; there are no duplicates, no data transfers. With the integration and enabling of digital signature no more hand written signing is essential in future. The access to data is limited by individual authorization control. This requires us er authentication. This personal access results in an individual current view on the system using a single sign-on login.

The structuring of data consists of six main classes linked together (people, organisation, teaching, research, rooms and inventory) which are listed in more than 600 tables. The functional model of the system has an onion skin like design. The core keeps the data represented in tables and their relations to each other. Programs are applications enabling access to that data. Roles determine the preconditions of the programs. Each program has its several roles. Functions connect the program’s roles with the identified user. The identified user is a physical person, a member of the TU Graz with unique user name and password. Each user may have different rights within the system. These rights are given to the user by the head of the institutional unit. The data within the system can be basically divided into two main parts, data concerning people and those concerning organisations. The applications on base of these data comprehend the following fields of practice:

Inquiry of the teaching regarding the current academic year

Individual tasks for employees using the personal digital business card

Individual tasks for students using the personal digital business card

Individual tasks for organisation units

Tasks for service purposes

Tasks for central administration and management with a selective interface to the SAP system used for staff, inventory and room tasks When a freshman (or new employee) enters university he/she gets a PIN-code by the time of registration. With this “one-way” PIN-code the access to the TUGRAZonline system is established. From then on any administrational data needed for the study is offered by the system; from the personal calendar schedule up to the automatically printing of study certification, from registration of lectures to ECTS management, from lecture evaluation to vacation management the system got it all. Furthermore the very extensive complex but easy to use search functionality makes it easy to get the information needed. A simply navigation on base of institutional and functional units placed on the left side complete the necessities of a modern university administration system. The focus on the further dev elopment of the system is on the following aspects. In future the system will assist the students individual study progress (curriculum support). An english version of the TUGRAZonline will be indispensible as well as a deeper connection to the accounting system of the TU Graz. The usability is to be optimized steadily to offer a consistent intuitive layout.

The TU Graz TeachCenter – not just another e-Learning platform

The TU Graz TeachCenter is an internet based information system that can be seen from different perspectives. As mentioned before, the system of TUGTC goes back to the e- Learning landscape called „WBTMaster“ that has been programmed (Helic et al, 2004), tested and improved by the TU Graz Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media by the team of Prof. Nikolai Scerbakov under the direction of Prof. Hermann Maurer, head of IICM. It contains courses which have their corresponding lecture registered within the TUGRAZonline system. When a student applies for a lecture using TUGRAZonline system the content of the lecture can be found at the homonymic TUGTC course. Administrative data (user’s password and authorization) come from TUGRAZonline system; so only one time login is needed for both systems. Therefore for restricted TUGTC courses only those who are registered to the related lecture using TUGRAZonline are allowed to login that TUGTC course. External users can be added to the TUTC on demand as well. Primary, the system serves as a an advanced Learning Management System (LMS), that is, hundreds of university courses are hosted by the system to provide an Internet space for distribution training materials, performing training - oriented tasks and advanced communication between teachers and students. There might be a reasonable question “What is so special about TUGTC to justify development yet another LMS?”

Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Normally, LMS are praised as a special environment providing advanced functionality for students allowing learning anywhere and anytime. These approaches often put on teachers such additional burden as authoring courses, documents, etc., and require additional efforts to overcome an initial learning curve. TUGTC was built on essentially different precondition, LMS is considered to be an environment for teachers where they host students without any additional efforts or special knowledge. To achieve such challenging task, many unusual user interface solutions were taken and some very advanced software components were embedded into TUGTC. Lot of usability studies were carried out, to improve the interface especially to the required needs (Stickel et al, 2008).

Uploading/Reusing material:

Many users see LMS as an equivalent to Content Management System (CMS), and consider authoring materials and

building navigational structure on the server as a primary goal of a teacher. TUGTC simplifies this task using three main solutions:

Teachers may simply drag/drop their files from local folders (local drive) into internet course folders to make this materials available for students; typically, any PDF, DOC, etc. files are becoming part of a learning course with just one mouse click. TUGTC supports all major web service protocols like RPC and SOAP. Thus, third party authoring components can be used for contributing with on - the-fly documents into the system. Simply speaking, a stand-alone Blog Editor (MS Live Writer, ScribeFire, etc.) or HTML editor may be adjusted in such a way that documents constructed locally becomes available for students even without accessing TUGTC by the teacher. TUGTC makes an extensive use of so-called m ashup-technology, any third party sources of information can be reused as course components. Thus, a teacher may use his favorite blog or twitter account to make announcements for students, and such source of information become s eamless components of a course.

Summarizing, it might be said that working with TUGTC courses is not more difficult that reshuffling files on a local drive and using favorite text authoring tools to communicate to students.


The advantages of the TUGTC platform unlike to comparable commercial systems or open source solutions are not only its autonomy to licenses, versions and update options but first of all its philosophy of modular structure. In practice this means that each course can be individualized and therefore is highly adaptable to the requests of the teacher by adding teaching tools or removing them from the basic course equipment offered. Many users see such systems as very special software providing solely training oriented functionality, say, online examination, grading essays, developing training projects by groups of students, installing collections of FAQs, creating course-oriented thesaurus, installing shared schedules of events, etc. From this perspective, a T UGTC course looks as an empty container allocated for a particular university course. Teachers may select course components out of a list of existing ones and add instances of such components into their courses with one mouse click. There are literally doz ens of such components that allow performing very different tasks from uploading materials by students and doing online examinations till defining/sharing geographical locations of objects and creating picture albums. Thus, teachers may start their courses as a Blog of announcements and evolve into courses offering hundreds of different seamlessly integrated components. Another well-known problem of introducing modern LMS into a university environment can be titled as a “home page” syndrome. Most teachers h ave already their cosy course home pages that they are used to and can easily modify such pages. Any suggestions like “forget it and redo on a new platform”, are not welcomed to say the least. TUGTC offers a wide variety of export/import facilities that al low importing from single home pages till whole web sites including all the navigational means. Primitively speaking, teachers owning a home page may switch to TUGTC course with one mouse click. After such switching they immediately see all their materials that got automatically additional value – the materials can be easily edited, provided with comments, discussed on a forum, protected from a unauthorized access, redistributed on a CD, etc.


Perhaps, we have managed to convince a reader that TUGTC provides certain advantages for teachers, but students must also benefit from a modern LMS. Of course, having advanced environment for course scripts, announcements, examinations and doing practical assignment is of benefit for students. At the same t ime, being fully arranged by a teacher, it imposes on students a so-called “tunnel” effect. Students feel isolated from their colleagues and normal

Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

student life where far not all practical study problems are solved solely by teachers. TUGTC provides a rath er advanced social environment for students. Students may define their own web spaces, refer any personal web components like blogs, twitters, pictures, etc., apparently students may assign friends and become friends of others. Any user is informed as any of his friends is online, and may exchange with instant messages or invite such friends for a chat. Additionally, students may establish/join so-called user communities. Each User community possesses a number of resources (actually, any course resources may become a community resource), and a special room for sharing files and a forum for discussion this community specific issue. Each course may be seen as a community of users, and a student automatically becomes a member of such community as soon as he/she is enrolled for the course.

RSS feeds:

Another aspects where TUGTC especially takes care of, is notification of users, there is a very flexible hierarchy of RSS feeds that users may subscribe for. Each course component (forum, library, student file uploading, etc.) has an individual RSS feed informing users on latest modifications. As components are combined into courses, it forms a course RSS feed. As a student enrols for a number of courses, it gives the user personal RSS feed. Similarly, community of users may inform their members on latest modifications by community feeds.

Thus, conceptually TUGTC architecture may be perceived as four layers as follows:

internal and external resources that ranges from files, on-the-fly contributions to blogs widgets and information on users; functional components that process such resources (libraries, uploading areas, examination rooms, announcements, etc.); training courses that combine functional components into a single entity on a teacher decision; personal user desktop that provides an access (combines) a number of courses selected by a certain user.

This view onto the system immediately raises some questions, for example, why are components selected by a teacher? Or why do students select courses but not components? A possibility for students to select individual components instead of courses immediately leads us to an idea of personal learning environment (PLE). Actually, PLE is a combination of functional components selected by a student and presented as a single entity. For example, a student may select a couple of forums or libraries from different courses and view them on a single screen that considerably simplifies user goals replacing browsing for materials with delivering materials. Practical introducing PLE as an internal solution for TUGTC needs an implementation of all functional components in a form of highly reusable gadgets that can be easily combined with other gadgets. Having a possibility to reuse functionality of TUGTC as a number of gadgets actually opens an exciting possibility to place gadgets on user’s local desktop, to perform any learning tasks with TUGTC without actual visiting the Internet server.

TUGraz LearnLand – a blogosphere for collaborating with the WorldWideWeb

TU Graz LearnLand (TUGLL) 4 bases on ELGG, which is an open source blog sphere and social networking platform (Ebner & Taraghi, 2008). It was designed in March 2004 by Ben Werdmuller and David Tosh to let people easily connect to each other and share as well as discover new resources through their connections. Each student or university staff member has access to his own blog and can contribute resources, experiences and interesting scientific contents to his/her weblog as well as upload different documents to his file repository. It is also possible to grant access to external users who are in collaboration with TU Graz. The user generated contributions and resources can be shared publically on the Internet, among all logged-in users or within different communities of students. Communities can be created to allow a close collaboration between students who have the same interests. They are similar to user accounts and have their own blog and file repository. The connection between individual resources is managed by a built- in tagging system. All postings, contributions, etc are tagged with keywords, which describe the resources. As a result, similar resources are linked to each other with one or more identical keywords. Searching for a tag leads to the retrieval of similar resources, which are posted by different users in the system. The resources and search results are all available through RSS feeds. Students have the possibility to search for a specific tag among all the resources or in parts of the system i.e. in a community and subscribe the RSS feed of the result list.


Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

TUGLL also offers an RSS feed reader. The external resources within the Internet can be integrated into TUGLL by subscribing their RSS feeds. They could be then presented on the dashboard of the individual users or communities. It is also possible to publish the external resources in weblogs.

Extensions, Plugins and Widgets:

TUGLL offers a MetaWeblog API, which makes remote blogging possible (Ebner et al, 2008). Having an offline blogging tool installed, the student does not need to log into TUGLL to contribute blogs. Windows Live Writer for windows clients and ScribeFire, a FireFox browser plug-in can be mentioned as an example for blogging tools. A lot of modules have been developed as plug -ins and have been integrated into TUGLL to extend the functionality of the whole platform.

One of the mostly used ones is the “bookmark” plug-in, which is a social bookmarking module. It enables students to share and collect interesting links and URLs to the resources on the Internet. The module provides import / export of bookmarks in different standard formats. The actually visited page can be bookmarked directly into TUGLL through the “TUGLL it”-browser button. The “bookmark” plug -in is combined with a rating module to provide the students with the possibility to rate the bookmarks, track the rating of their own and choose the best rated ones in the search result. “Photo stream” plug-in can be used to share and collect photos. Students of architecture apply it often to create photo galleries of their work. The “video stream” plug -in is used to collect and integrate interesting videos contributed on YouTube or different scientific presentations from slideshare into TUGLL. All these modules are fully integrated in the tagging system. Furthermore they support all other built- in features such as the RSS feeds, tag-based search engine, etc. The tagging system has been supplemented by categories, which are actually the several major of studies at TU Graz. Shared resources and contributions can be assigned to a category. A filtering module with the help of the categories simplifies the information retrieval through the search engine. The “XMLRPC client” plug -in can be seen as an intercommunication tool between social learning landscapes which base on ELGG. It provides a web service, which bases on XMLRPC to enable this intercommunication i.e. to search within a trusted cloud of worldwide communicating ELGG platforms and to display the search results locally. The “Module settin gs” plug-in satisfies the needs of individualisation of the platform. Students can turn off some modules, which are not in scope of their interest, change the sidebar elements, reorder, close / open them or add some module links to the sidebar for better navigation. Through “Generic widgets” module students have the ability to embed generic widgets into their profile page or in the sidebar. There are many services on the Internet that offer widgets for their services., micro blogging services such as Jaiku and Twitter and so many other services can be presented through generic widgets for each user or community in TUGLL. “River”module allows the students to be always informed about all recent activities of their friends and the communities, in which they are members. TUGLL provides also a “Suggestion”module, which is a simple recommender. The module looks for all objects (users, communities, blogs, files, bookmarks, videos, photos, etc.) contributed in TUGLL that could be interesting for the studen t according to the user’s profile and the content that has been already contributed by the user.


Beside the three main platforms presented in this paper (TUGRAZonline, TUGraz TeachCenter, TUGraz LearnLand) further applications (for example WIKI systems or special podcast and streaming services) are offered to the teachers. With the increase of technology it becomes harder and harder to find the appropriate tools, the right didactical setting as well as to know how each tool can be used optimal . This leads to the assumption that the next step has to be personalisation of content and services. To achieve this goal a so-called Personal Learning Environment (Schaffert & Hilzensauer, 2008) should help to support flexibility and overview by using a wid get- based framework and the mash-up principle. Since the beginning of this century, Graz University of Technology has been actively implementing a next- generation e-Learning environment. It should be especially noted that such development was not strictly technology driven; user requirements of all user groups engaged in university learning (students, teachers and administrators) were sorely investigated. Because of several reasons mentioned within this paper, it must be pointed out that we did not try to develop one platform but can highly recommend the strategy chosen. We have to enable an environment

Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

where well working services are connected and supported using APIs, web-services, RSS-Feeds or simple http- connection; the TU Graz Personal Learning Environment.

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