Education is becoming increasingly collaborative with the advent of the Internet, so it is no surprise that educators around the world are seeking improved methods of collaborating through the medium of the Internet. We have developed a web-based collaborative system, which enables educators to collaborate with remote colleagues on projects. They can use tools such as a web cam, e-mail, whiteboard, and a chat room applet. The educator also has access to other educators through the chat room applet and can browse through the history to check whether questions have been previously answered. Remote control software allows each educator to take control of each other's machine in order to trouble-shoot problems and/or demonstrate formulas.
The purpose of this effort is to conduct research directed toward the development of a prototype electronic environment to support a geographically distributed group, which is conducting team science. The system is in everyday use and here we demonstrate the many benefits of such a collaborative environment.
Centralized web computing has proven itself effective for information broadcasting and electronic commerce over the Internet and on corporate intranets. Peer computing, on the other hand, makes efficient use of computing and communications resources around the "edge" of the network. How? Some peer applications gain efficiencies by aggregating the distributed storage capacity (e.g., Napster, gnutella) and computing cycles (e.g., SETI@home) of devices spread across a network; others, such as instant messaging, take advantage of the direct network connections that peer devices can make to enhance the effectiveness of communications.
The most familiar example of a peer device is the telephone. Voice connections over the telephone are made directly, from one point on a network to another. The critical distinction between the phone network and peer computing is that the phone employs an intelligent network (with built-in logic for routing, tracking and billing) with relatively "dumb" devices (telephone handsets) at the edge of the network, while the peer-to-peer Internet model uses a relatively "dumb" network (the Internet) with no built-in application logic and high function endpoints (i.e., computers). High function at the edge of the network means there's far greater potential for rapid innovation in Internet peer services, tools, and applications.
There is no need for IT administrators to manage access, security, storage, or other tasks associated with centralized web-based shared workspaces. Team members make use of their own local computing resources. Consider the inefficiency of sending an e-mail with a file attachment to ten recipients, who then reply to all with the file still attached, taxing the network and storage resources. Peer-to-peer file transfer can minimize network traffic while eliminating redundant storage. Administrative costs are not limited to activities inside the firewall. Peer computing makes direct use of local computing resources in business-to-business and business-to-consumer settings.
We have implemented a peer-to-peer web-based collaboration environment called Helpmate for the Physics Department at Coleraine University. Helpmate allows educators to share documents through the web, also enabling them to modify them in real time. There is also a real-time chat room for those involved in the project to make public and private comments. This is also where questions can be posted for later answering. Helpmate also contains remote control software, which allows another educator to take control of a student's machine to configure settings and run programs from the luxury of his/her machine. There is also a whiteboard for scribbling/doodling on. The Chat Room contains Language Translation, software which translates from one language into another in real time so that one colleague can type in say, French while the recipient who only speaks English will see the comment in English. …