Distance education refers to a mode of learning in which students and educators are situated in different place and/or time (Bates, 2005). In the past, distance education is delivered by printed materials and audio tapes via postal service. Students usually have to study independently and in isolation. With the advances in telecommunications technologies, distance education can now take place through multiple media, such as radio broadcasts, video-conferencing, and online learning platforms. Interactions among students and teachers now become possible: the temporal and spatial barriers are therefore alleviated. In recent years, the advent of mobile technologies have been offering cheaper and more convenient communications so that students and educators can access information and communicate with one another anytime anywhere ubiquitously by using various mobile devices (Chang et al., 2007). Mobile technologies bring both new opportunities and challenges to distance education.
Retaining awareness, accessibility, and responsiveness among students and educators is one of the main concerns for modern distance education (Tuckman 2005). With the increasing mobility of students and educators as well as the increasing number of busy professionals undertaking life-long learning, merely online learning platforms and web-based administrative services are no longer adequate (El-Bishouty et al., 2007). Neither traditional practices of using cellular phones and pagers for communications, nor isolated electronic means like email or instant messenger are adequate for seamless integration with existing and future learning platforms. Multi-channel ubiquitous communications support now becomes necessary (Fano & Gershman, 2002; Chang et al., 2007). At the same time, tutors and staff are easily overwhelmed by the increasingly large amount of messages and may overlook some important or urgent ones. We refer to these important or urgent messages as alerts (Kafeza et al., 2004; Chiu & Choi, 2005).
As such, a number of issues must be considered in order to support effective ubiquitous communications for distance education. For instance, alert management should include various alert types and parameters that qualify the service provider to receive an alert. Apart from service suitability, application specific considerations like costs, waiting time, service time may also be important. In addition, routing, monitoring, and logging the alerts are also mandatory functionalities for ubiquitous communications and their automated management. Based on our experience in alert management for healthcare applications (Chiu et al., 2004) in which the management of urgent and important communications is also the key to success, we propose to adopt an alert management system (AMS) as a key driver software module for communications management in distance education.
The contributions of this paper include: (i) an enhanced conceptual model for managing alerts based on the requirements of communications management in distance education and a set of routing parameters; (ii) a practical architecture for the AMS based on contemporary Web Services for programmatic interactions, together with multiple-platform ubiquitous support for human users; (iii) a mechanism for (re-)routing alerts and increasing their urgency level when alerts are not acknowledged or processed within a deadline; (iv) a demonstration of the applicability of this approach with a case study of the Open University of Hong Kong.
The rest of our paper is organized as follows. First, we discuss an overview of our methodology and the requirements for ubiquitous communications management in distance education. Then, we compare related work. Next, we describe our alert conceptual model that captures both data and process integration requirements, followed by our system architecture, highlighting the AMS and its mechanisms for monitoring and ubiquitously routing the alerts. …