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The Other Infrastructure: Distance Education's Digital Plant

Part of the lure of delivering higher education on the Web is the apparent promise of lower infrastructure costs by avoiding the traditional campus infrastructure costs. But the reality is that now we need yet another infrastructure the digital plant.With the emergence of a virtual teaching and learning environment the Web many higher education planners were tempted to think that they were "saved" from having to build new colleges and universities. They may have even thought, "No more new campuses! No more huge, expensive building projects and land acquisitions! All we have to do is to get the faculty to move their teaching to the Web!"

The movement to shift some programs from the physical to the digital campus is in fact well under way, and we are learning that some of those early reactions were well founded. But we are beginning to understand that our Web campuses do not magically appear, that online programs are not "almost" free to deliver. We need a complex structure to support our Web campuses, and skilled people to operate them. We started the '90s familiar with the workings of the physical plant infrastructure that supports our traditional campuses. We are starting the first decade of the 21st century with a growing awareness of what is needed to support flexible Web campus environments. A new infrastructure is needed a digital plant. As with our physical infrastructure, this digital infrastructure needs to be designed, planned, built, maintained, and staffed.

Just how the physical campus infrastructure will ultimately be integrated with Web campus infrastructure is yet to be seen, and how much overlap there will be in costs and staffing is still unknown. But the need for the digital plant, whether on or off campus, is clear.

What is the Other Infrastructure?

An infrastructure, in terms of our current campus physical plant, is the set of buildings, lands, roads, facilities, utilities, and services that support the delivery of instruction, the discovery of research, and public service programs.

Then what about the digital plant infrastructure? One way of describing the Web campus infrastructure is to think of it as being constructed of four major categories of components, including:

  1. Personal communication tools and applications
  2. A network of networks for the Web campus
  3. Dedicated servers and software applications
  4. Software applications and services from external providers

It should be noted that none of these systems work without people to manage them, so people make up a key component of the Web campus infrastructure. The graphic on page 16 shows people at the center of this infrastructure.

Personal Communication Tools and Applications

Personal communication tools and applications for teaching, learning, and research have been transforming themselves over the past 20 years from campus mainframe tools, to the departmental minicomputer, to the personal desktop. More recently, they have evolved from the desktop, to the laptop, to the palmtop, and even to the wrist top! This means that the tools for teaching and learning are more portable than ever.

What d'es this mean for our Web campus infrastructure? It likely means that student expectations of what is available in the Web campus will continue to increase. Students will likely expect to be able to access not only communication technologies and teaching and learning resources, but also all their administration and financial transactions anywhere and anytime. This means that we want to plan for a 24 by 7 support infrastructure.

Network of Networks for the Web Campus

The second component to the campus Web infrastructure is the network. A network of networks serves the campus LANs and provides links to the off-campus, regional, national, and global networks. Networks have many layers of physical hardware, software applications, middleware, and licensing. Networks require cabling, routers, switches, management and security software, agreements, and license fees. Why are networks necessary for teaching and learning? Local area networks, wide-area networks, and national and global networks link the personal communication tools together and provide the anywhere, anytime access for flexible and convenient learning.

Probably the most common bandwidth speed on our campuses is shared 10 megabit Ethernet, and not surprisingly, pressure is on to upgrade to higher bandwidth, such as a switched 10 megabit Ethernet to accommodate MPEG1 video applications as part of the Internet2 architecture. The Web campus needs to planfor advanced high-bandwidth services, but applications for online learning may be constrained by the network speed that most students and faculty use in their homes currently 56Kb.

Dedicated Servers and Software Applications

The third category, dedicated servers and software applications, is very comprehensive and includes dedicated servers and the software applications on those servers that manage campus services, such as e-mail, Web sites and applications, campus directories, program and course management systems, and administrative services. It represents, more than any other category, the "physical" spaces of the new Web campus. These dedicated servers are the new classrooms, libraries, and offices of the digital plant of the Web campus. One way of thinking about this category is that for every service or transaction that an on-campus student might need or want, an equivalent service or transaction capability is needed (or at least, recommended) for the Web campus. This means that every campus service will serve the campus from a digital space that is equivalent to a physical space.

We are in a period of transition where both the old and the new "spaces" need to be supported. During this time, faculty need a set of services to support their transition and integration of the Web campus and the mixing of the traditional and digital infrastructures. It is an expensive and complex process.

Software Applications and Services from External Providers

The fourth category of the new digital infrastructure is a set of software applications and services from external providers,such as licensed library and research services,Internet services,and other outsourced network services. Theseresources and services are very difficult for campuses to provide for themselves. Consortial memberships and services are also part of this category. The digital infrastructures developed by campuses will differ significantly according to their mission, programs, and initiatives.

Characteristics of a Good Teaching and Learning Infrastructure

The characteristics of a supportive teaching and learning infrastructure for the new Web campus are not so surprising. They include a campus environment with people, spaces, and things such as tools, equipment, and resources supported by services for teaching and learning. Networks, communication services, and virtual spaces for meetings support faculty and the students. This is the basic services component of an infrastructure built and delivered with available technology. These services are best provided within an integrated and reliable organization, and managed under a set of campus-wide policies for access and security. Alan Kay, the pioneer educational technologist, said that technology should "make simple things easy and difficult things possible." That statement aptly sums up the basic characteristics of a good teaching and learning infrastructure.

A good teaching and learning infrastructure also has other enduring attributes. First and foremost, it allows us to deliver educational value, through multimedia content, electronic discussion boards, or simply access to e-mail and Web services. The ability of the infrastructure to deliver different kinds of programs without major redesigns is a key characteristic. Educational value is derived from the support of synchronous and asynchronous learning, on-campus and distant learners, and collaboration over time and space.

A good infrastructure is also scalable. It must be designed and tested to handle growth in terms of increased number of users, more demanding applications, and a greater variety of applications. At the same time, it should easily accommodate smaller application domains, such as smaller classes.

Another characteristic of a good teaching and learning infrastructure is mission-critical availability. This means that the infrastructure must be reliable and consistently available (24 hours a day, and 7 days a week) to meet the needs of faculty and students.

The infrastructure we build for teaching and learning also has to be sustainable, i.e., resilient and pliable enough to survive and accommodate technology changes as well as the test of time. It will be based on an architecture that depends on open, published standards, reusability of components, serviceability, and maintainability. A sustainable infrastructure can be integrated into existing infrastructure and practices. It has to be stable, long-lived, and widely available.

ThedigitalplantforaWebcampus shares many characteristics with the physical plant. The digital plant needs to be planned, designed, maintained, operated, and staffed. This can only be done with a reasonably sized staff and budget. The digital plant also needs to be extraordinarily reliable, as the community will be depending on it for mission-critical applications around the clock from around the globe.

How Is the Digital Plant Different from the Physical Plant?

The digital plant for a Web campus is also quite different from the physical plant. This digital plant is nearly invisible for most peopleuntil it d'esn't work. In this respect, it is similar to the heating and lighting of a physical plant. The digital plant is only visible to the average user through the LCD panel of a user's personal communication tools. This feature of the digital plant links to another significant difference. When there is a failure event in a digital plant, it can be a monumental failure, affecting the entire community. This can also happen with a physical plant, but it is less likely, and if it d'es happen, often the entire surrounding community is failing under the same event. Thus, budgets for redundancy, backup, security, and people who know how to use them are essential. One other feature differentiating the physical plant from the digital plant is that the life cycle of so many of the components of the digital plant is quite short. So, new time-focused methods of budgeting will likely evolve.

How Will the Digital Plant Evolve?

The technology, organization, and policy components of the evolving digital plant are already much clearer now than just 3-4 years ago. We have the beginnings of guidelines for lifecycling of many components of that infrastructure. It may be that most of the activity over the next 3-4 years will be in the integration of the physical and the digital as we transition to new spaces. Hopefully, this integration will bring some scaling and economies to higher education institutions.

Teaching and Learning Infrastructure for New MIT Communities

An example from MIT shows a digital plant in action. MIT has launched two new initiatives for the extended learning community that represent important large-scale "educational experiments"the year-old Singapore-MIT Alliance and the recently announced Cambridge-MIT Institute. An effective way of thinking about the infrastructure required to deliver these programs would be along three dimensions: technology, organization, and policy.


The major components of the technology to support these initiatives cluster around connectivity, classrooms, and content. The connectivity that is essential to suppor the video streaming and live video of the Singapore-MIT programs is the high bandwidth Internet2 (vBNS). Also, the video depends on specially configured classrooms at both MIT and Singapore.

For other teaching methodologies, tools such as Netmeeting are used to support synchronous collaboration, and a hybrid of two locally developed systems of Web-delivered course creation and management are used in asynchronous communication. This hybrid system is composed of the COMMAND system, a Lotus Notes/Domino server-based system created by John Williams, et al. in the Intelligent Engineering Systems Laboratory in Civil Engineering; and the Hypermedia Instruction and Teaching Environment (HITE), a CGI, Javascript, and HTML template system designed by Dr. Nishikant Sonwalkar (


Launching these two new programs required not only new combinations of technology but also prompted new organizational alignments. A new support center, The Educational Media Creation Center (EMCC), was created. The goal in creating this center was to bring together IT competencies from diverse organizational units, such as Information Systems and the Center for Advanced Educational Services. This program required a new combination of skills to meet the production, delivery, and support of educational materials, with sustainability as a key guiding principle.

The infrastructure had to support:

  • Synchronous and asynchronous learning
  • On-campus and distant learners
  • Collaboration over space and time

And the infrastructure needed to be:

  • Scalableto accommodate a growing number of users and programs
  • Reliable, i.e, available on a mission-critical basis
  • Secure

The production and delivery of materials needed to meet the following requirements:

  • Sustainability
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Policy

Equally significant, but perhaps not as well understood or defined, are the issues related to the policy substrate of the infrastructure. The extended community raises questions about how membership to the MIT community is defined and the extent of access to resources, such as library resources. Discussion continues around software licensing, authentication, authorization, and security issues.

Looking ahead, we see a multidirectional growth of MIT's distance education opportunities:expansion of the current Singapore-MIT program with more courses being offered simultaneously, and more graduateprograms, such as those with the Cambridge-MIT Institute. In addition, these programs will be enhanced with real and virtual opportunities for interactivity and collaboration using innovations such as remote virtual labs, videotutors, animations, visualizations and simulations, and multipoint video conferencing.

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