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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 http://www.editlib.org/p/33375.

Teaching and Learning in Higher Education –


An Integral Approach

Martin Ebner
Computing and Information Services / Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
martin.ebner@tugraz.at

Nikolai Scerbakov
Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
nsherbak@iicm.edu

Behnam Taraghi
Computing and Information Services / Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
b.taraghi@tugraz.at

Walther Nagler
Computing and Information Services / Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
walther.nagler@tugraz.at

Isidor Kamrat
Computing and Information Services
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
isidor.kamrat@tugraz.at

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 system (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.

Introduction
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.
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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 Collaborative 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 projects 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 website1, 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 any 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 (IICM2)
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

1
http://www.tugraz.at
2
http://www.iicm.tugraz.at
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 http://www.editlib.org/p/33375.

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 the 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 well 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.

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

3
http://elgg.org/
Published in: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education
International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
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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 upgraded 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 user 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 development 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?”
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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 mashup-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 seamless 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.

Modularity/Extensionability:
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 TUGTC 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 dozens 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 have 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 allow 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.

Community:
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 time, 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.
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student life where far not all practical study problems are solved solely by teachers. TUGTC provides a rather
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.

4
http://tugll.tugraz.at
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International Conference 2010 (pp. 428-436). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
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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 settings” 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. Last.fm,
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 student according to the user’s profile and the content that has been already
contributed by the user.

Discussion
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 widget-
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 http://www.editlib.org/p/33375.

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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