altDu Junzhen, Associate Professor, Deputy Director of Modern Educational Technology Center, Shanxi Open University
Overseas Based University: the Open University; Advisor: Dr. Hossein Zand
Study Area: Computer Network and Application of Distance Educational Technology


UK Educational Computer Network and Application of Distance Educational Technology

--A Report About My Study In The UK



First and foremost, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Naylor, Mrs. Ely, and all trustees from Sino-British Fellowship Trust for their generous support to the training program of distance education in 2006. Without their sponsorship, it would have been impossible for me to have this wonderful opportunity to study in the UK.

I am also extremely grateful to my supervisor Dr. Hossein Zand and other colleagues in the Open University for enabling me to undertake my study and providing me good learning support, many valuable academic activities and considerate arrangements for my research during my stay at the Open University.

Outline of Academic Research

As an academic visitor, I studied Educational Computer Network and Distance Educational New technology in the Institute of Educational Technology, Open University at Milton Keynes from 6th July to 17th November 2006. During this period, I have completed the following:

1. Studies about the Educational Computer Network in the UK
The educational computer network in the UK that I studied is JANET network. JANET, sponsored by the individuals and government, is the world class ICT network for UK education and research. It connects the UK's education and research organisations to each other, as well as to the rest of the world through links to the Internet. In addition, JANET includes an independent network for the experiment and research in the area of network development by academics. JANET is managed by UKERA.

The communities that JANET serves include Higher Education community, the Research community, the Further Education (FE) colleges, UK schools, specialist colleges, Adult and Community Learning, and a number of other organisations. JANET has more than 18 million users across the UK.

I studied the JANET network in the following aspects:

  • Network Platform and Architecture
    Through careful studying technical documents, I have studied the design of the core network and regional network. The selection of core routing equipment is a major part of the design process for computer network. The core IP routing platform that the fifth generation network SuperJANET5 adopted is Juniper T640 IP router. This new "Carrier Grade" routers can provide very high levels of reliability, advanced IP-based services, coupled with an ability to support a large number of connections at or above the speed of 10Gbit/s and remain in the vanguard of new protocol and service developments. This advanced network platform can meet the growing needs of all the UK education and research sectors that use JANET.
    SuperJANET5 is a fibre optic network with nationwide coverage, equipped with wave division multiplexing transmission equipment, the Backbone consists of two parts: a core network and a set of "collector arc" networks to connect the Regional Networks and other aggregation points to the core network. Each Regional Network is connected to two separate core IP routers via either 2.5Gbit/s or 10Gbit/s channel from each of its Regional Network entry points.
    The newly enhanced world class ICT network for UK education and research-SuperJANET5 was launched on 26th October 2006.
  • Technical Services
    JANET provides the end users' networks with a number of supplementary services: including Networking Support Services and Network Application Services, for example, Name server Service, Off-site Resolving Service, network monitoring service, Network Time Service, Managed Router Service and Roaming Service, IP service, Web Mail, Mail Abuse Prevention, Spam Tester and Notification, Web Filtering and Web Hosting etc.
    Through detailed study, I have learned the technical approaches for implementing these services.
  • Network Development
    From the development projects carried out by UKERNA, I gained some knowledge in transmission technology, multicast technology, traffic engineering techniques and network access techniques.
    By reading the technical documents about network development, I have learned the authentication, authorization and security solutions and the methods of network performance measurement.
  • Policies and Technical Documents
    The network policies and technical documents are necessary to maintain network.
    I have read some JANET Policies and technical documents, such as JANET Connection Policy, JANET Acceptable Use Policy, The Service Level Agreements, JANET IPv6 Technical Guide and A Case Study in Complying with the JANET Roaming Service Technical Specification.
    As we know,a well designed and maintained infrastructure is key to an institution's ability to deliver highly effective ICT to the learner, educator and administrator. Therefore there must be a common approach to network design, management and security. With the above idea, I carefully studied the Becta's Institutional Infrastructure specifications and the key technical design criteria for school ICT, for example, Local area networks in institutions, Services and applications in institutions, Implementation of ICT security in institutions and Network Technologies in institutions.
    By studying JANET, I have gained a valuable knowledge on computer network design and management, widened my horizons of academic research.

2. Studies about the Computer Network of the Open University
I studied the OU computer network in the four main aspects:

  • Network Infrastructure
    The Open University computer network supports several thousand users across the campus at OU headquarter and all the regional centres.
    Through investigation, I have learned that each building on the campus is interconnected via optical fibres and multiple routers that enable connectivity to any of the University's servers. The OU has multiple leased lines from BT, Cable and Wireless, NTL and Torch Telecom that enable connectivity to the regional centres across the UK, together with a dedicated connection to the Internet via the Janet network. This allows staff access to the web, e-mail, conferencing and other remote services from their desktop personal computer, and the rest of the world access to its Web sites. The H.323 protocol based video conferencing system across the Open University Network is also established through the leased lines.

    Network Management
    Decentralized Network Management
    The campus network is an important part of the university's infrastructure, supporting the delivery of many key services. Networking is also a part of the Faculty computing environments that support teaching and research.
    Through studying technical document and having discussion with some IT technical experts, I have learned that network management at the OU is currently decentralized. The OU network is managed as a small number of autonomous regions with IP Layer 3 routed connections among them. Routed interfaces provide a level of isolation that reduces the likelihood of problems in one region affecting other regions. Each region is managed by respectively academic unit or by AACS. Decentralization provides autonomy to the Faculties so that they can manage their computing environments to meet the particular needs of their faculty, staff, and students.
    A unit that manages its own networks is responsible for all aspects of network management within its region. This responsibility includes installation, maintenance, upgrades, patching, problem resolution and adherence to campus network standards. Each department has been assigned several IT facilitators to support the maintenance of computer network. The total number of such facilitators at the OU is nearly 140.

    Network Monitoring system
    Through studying technical document and discussing with some IT technical experts, I have learned that the OU has established a number of servers running dedicated software to test quality and performance of the backbone, the links to the Internet and the JANET links and the service for critical applications and infrastructure equipment.

    If there are any network problems an Alert will be sent to the IT technicians for their attention. This is done via screen flags, alarms, SMS text messages and net broadcast and also faults are logged into a database, failures can then be fixed remotely using specialist personnel or by visiting the fault directly.
    I think the OU network monitoring solutions are very helpful for my university to improve its network monitoring system.
  • Network Security
    As networks become an integral part of distance education, and the use of computer services are getting more and more a major part of the institution's teaching and administrative activity, the Open University has used some advanced network security technologies to protect data and preserve privacy. I investigated the following two systems:

    Standard Access Management System (SAMS)
    The OU uses Standard Access Management System (SAMS) to authenticate users and authorise their access to restricted computer systems and to protect web sites and other network services.
    Almost all services that require a user to sign-on have an interface to SAMS in some way, when users open their browsers; SAMS use the "cookie" to identify the computer user. The "SAMS" files determine which authorisation ID can unlock the directories of a SAMS enabled web site and provide access to the web pages within. When a user attempts to access a page in a SAMS protected web-site, the web server compares the list of authorisation IDs in the .SAMS file to the list in the users entry in the SAMS directory. If any match, the user is permitted to read the web page. Every user assigned a username has an entry in the SAMS Directory. Over 450,000 OU Computer User-names have been issued.
    Through investigating this system, I think the OU central authentication and authorization solution is very helpful for our university to improve its user access management system.

    The OU Desktop Software System
    Through using the OU personal computers, I have experienced the advantages of the OU Desktop Software System. This software can provide a universal desktop working environment and automatically check the network connectivity. Through investigation, I learned that all new desktop PCs running on all versions of Windows on the campus would be installed with the OU Desktop Software. When user logs on to a PC running the OU Desktop, a batch process will automatically start. This starts the batch file OUCLIENT-LOGON.BAT, which calls other batch files as appropriate. The system also keeps Anti-Virus files up-to-date, and automatically keeps the PC up-to-date with any necessary changes, such as security patches.

    In addition, I also used some other security software, such as Sophos Anti Virus Software, SpamAssassin software, which can automatically scan all email being sent to the University from the Internet, and protects email addresses from spam harvesters.

    Network Security Documentation
    I also spent some time on reading the OU campus network security documentation. This includes Infrastructure Documentation for Distributed Systems Infrastructure, the Open University Computing Code of Conduct, Information Handling and Quality Management Policy, and Statement on Security of Computing and Network Resources.
  • Network System Development
    In order to enable students to learn efficiently and effectively, the OU pays much emphasis on developing and design its information system.
    Through the OU Intranet web sites, I studied some web design standard and techniques, for instance, Design of Web Database Transactions, User Interface Guidelines for Web Developers and Web Application Availability.
    In addition, I have read some OU System Development Plans developed by AACS. From these Plans, I have gained some thoughts on design that are very helpful to improve our university's information system, for example, the OU has planned to adopt the world's most advanced open source database-PostGres in support of its VLE project.

3. Studies about the Application of Educational Technology in the Open University
There are many kinds of delivery mechanisms in distance education such as independent study, computer-based instruction, computer-assisted instruction, video conferencing, web-based instruction and online learning. Technology has played a key role in changing the dynamics of each delivery.

The Open University has adopted or developed a number of application systems for its open distance learning. Within the broad areas, I focused my investigation on the following:

  1. New media System
    New Media is a relatively new field of study that has developed around cultural practices with the computer playing a central role as the medium for production, storage and distribution. New Media studies reflect on the social and ideological impact of the personal computer, computer networks, digital mobile devices, ubiquitous computing and virtual reality.

I investigated dozens of new media systems in the OU, and focused on the following three systems currently used by the Open University.

  • Asynchronous Communication and Collaboration Platform
    The Open University has adopted FirstClass software as its asynchronous communication and collaboration platform to support open distance learning. Through using this platform, I think that the OU staffs and students can communicate effectively and share valuable resources and information via email, conferencing, instant message, directories, individual and shared calendars, slide presentations and online chats.
  • Synchronous Communication and Collaboration Platform
    Since the Open University is a completely distance teaching institution, one of the primary concerns for OU is the development of pedagogically effective, interactive environments. These years, the Open University has been using its owned developed Lyceum software as its synchronous communication and collaboration Platform to support its open distance learning. The system can provide students and tutors with multi-way voice conferencing and synchronous, visual workspace tools, operating over the Internet via a dial-up phone line.
  • Web based conferencing
    The OU developed its own web based conferencing system "FlashMeeting" in 2006. Through using this new software system, I found that the system has many good features which we can adopt, for instance, share applications, spreadsheets and graphics with others in a meeting, share full desktop or just a specific application for privacy, pass control to any other participant, take remote control of a participant's computer, share PowerPoint slides and mark them up with drawing tools and allow participants to mark up slides and so on.
  1. New Educational Technology Used in the Open University

Current trends in the field of distance education indicate a shift in theoretical frameworks and pedagogical perspectives, with student interaction at the heart of learner-centred constructivist environment.

The Open University and many other universities have gradually begun to apply following new technologies in distance education. I spent a lot of time on studying them.

  • Eportfolio
    Enlightened by the plan for the application of new educational technology in the Open University, I have analysed several e-portfolio commercial products. I paid much attention to their functionality and some technical questions, such as the ease with which they could interface with our existing information systems, scalability and robustness and underlying technical platform.
  • Wiki
    A wiki is a collection of Web pages that are linked to each other, and reflect the collaborative works of many authors. Wiki can successfully promote collaboration among instructors, staff, and students. I have studied a number of wiki web sites and explored how wiki technologies are applied in distance education and also learned how to design and implement a wiki system for serving the teaching and learning.
  • Podcasting
    Podcasting is the method of distributing multimedia files, such as audio or video programs, over the Internet using syndication feeds, for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. A podcast is able to allow the multimedia files to be downloaded automatically using software capable of reading feeds like RSS or Atom.
    I have studied a number of universities' podcasting web sites and explored how podcasting technologies are applied in distance education and also learned the technical methods for the implementation of podcasting in teaching and learning.
  • Mobile-Learning Technology
    Mobile-learning is the delivery of learning to students who are not keeping a fixed location through the use of mobile or handheld IT devices. Mobile learning is currently used as a supplement to ICT, online learning and traditional learning methods, and can do much to enrich the learning experience. The world of learning becomes more mobile, more flexible and more exciting.
    I have read a number of articles about mobile learning and studied how mobile technologies are used in E-learning and also learned some restrictions for mobile devices used in distance learning and the future solutions.
  1. The Open University's Website

The Open University has many websites. I have surfed most of these websites, and studied especially the design scheme and some important web sites that are more related to my research work.

The Open University's website generates 50 million page impressions a month and content is spread across 2000+ websites. More than 200,000 students can sign in to the online learning environment and more than £100million of online registrations are taken each year. So the management of the web site is very important.

Through studying, I have learned that the strategic management of the OU website is based on the five key dependent principles: Information Architecture, Identity, Strategic search engine management, Meeting the customers and Website analytics.

The framework for the strategic planning, design and development of the OU web sites to present a coherent view of the OU impress me a lot. I also paid special attention to the accessible web design and have learned some useful key principles and techniques in the accessible web design.

  1. The Open University' Knowledge Network

The OU Knowledge Network is one of the many websites that I investigated.

The OU Knowledge Network is a web-based service, which allows any member of OU staff to share their teaching experiences or educational research, and to create collaborative websites. The Knowledge Network contains case studies and evaluations of teaching innovations; student feedback; institutional research; professional development activities and discussions; and insights from across the educational world.

The registered users of the website can publish their work to the OU Intranet or to the Web and also can control access to commercially sensitive or copyrighted work, invite comments on work-in-progress. One of the Knowledge Network's features is that all resources are automatically cross-referenced with related resources.

The content of the websites consists of dynamic page content managed through the Macromedia ColdFusion Server (Enterprise Edition) with a dedicated SQL 2000 Server (Standard Edition) that holds the bulk of the knowledge Network content and that interacts with a number of other databases to generate the rest of the content for the site.

The KN web server uses eWebEditPro to allow rich text content to be turned into HTML page automatically. It uses Advanced Security within ColdFusion to authenticate staff against the University's directory server. It uses Verity to enable powerful data searching.

The KN uses Legato Networker to backup the database structures to tape daily so that data can be recovered easily and the KN uses a staging server (IBM xSeries 240 without Raid array) to manage content changes without affecting the live system.
The server uses roles based security mechanisms to enable staff to publish and to make use of the system.

Through studying, I have learned some techniques for the web design, which will be helpful to my future work.

  1. The New OU Project-Virtual Learning Environment

In the past several years, many conventional higher education providers have mastered the techniques of on-line distance education and have expanded their part-time higher education provision and have developed E-learning capacity through the use of the Web and the operation of Virtual Learning Environments, they have increased their capacity to increase their share of distance education market. A number of developments in higher education have combined to mount a significant challenge to the OU current learning delivery methods.

Through investigation, I learned that the OU has re-reformulated its learning and teaching strategy in order to enhance the position of the OU as the leading provider of supported, open, distance learning in the UK and around the world, and has begun a £4m programme to develop its own virtual learning environment to meet the requirement of the students.

Through interviewing some VLE team members, I have learned that One of the primary aims of the VLE Programme is to integrate more than twenty different online software systems and innovative learning systems in a single, seamless interface, which is much easier for students and tutors to navigate, and another aim of the VLE Programme is to provide new tools and new technology for online learning and to develop effective new pedagogies, and I also learned that the OU has selected the leading open source E-learning platform, Moodle, as a key component of its VLE architecture.

I have also read the planning and strategy of the Open University's VE, and I think this is definitely helpful to the construction of distance education platform in China.

Outline of Academic Activities

During my stay at the Open University, I attended about fifteen seminars、tutorials and meetings. I had discussions with more than twenty experts and administrators from the Learning & Teaching Solutions (LTS), Knowledge Media Institute (KMI), Institute of Educational Technology (IET) and AACS.

I took part in the training programme offered by LTS, including Interactive Media and Application of Technology, Asynchronous Conferencing Software and Course Design. I had a session with the Virtual Learning Environment team and Structured Author/eProduction team. These activities made me further understand how the new educational technologies are applied in the Open University.

Although technologies have developed very fast, many factors may limit or deter implementation of technologies. So I paid a special attention to the point of views of some experts about the relations between technology and distance education. I participated in the online course "modelling the Open University", and had discussions and exchanged my views with the author about Media and IT.

Visiting Activities

Over the past four months, I visited several regional centres of the Open University, and interviewed some administrators, tutors and technical experts, and discussed some issues about learning media and online learning with them. These visiting activities helped me further understand how the Open University work, how the tutors and the student services staffs support their students'learning.

Practice After Return

After my return to China, I prepared for the reporting materials about my study in the UK with great concentration, and made a report to the leaders and all teaching and administrative staffs. In this report, I introduced some new educational technology and learning support services at the Open University, and the report was well received by our leaders and colleagues.

During the period of more than one year after my return, I have done some works in the following several aspects according to the actual conditions in our university.

  1. Enhance the management and security of campus network
    The campus network is an important part of the university's infrastructure, supporting the delivery of many key services. Networking is also a part of the Faculty computing environments that support teaching and research.
    On the basis of incorporating the advanced experience of Open University in the area of campus security and management, I have taken some security measures to protect our campus network. The measures include keep the system software patches up to date promptly, use software with newest version, reinforce the management of the passwords, protecte key network equipments and servers by using access control policy, logically isolate the regional network effectively, close unused service ports according to the minimum principles, use bug-scanning system to check all network devices regularly, backup the database server regularly so that the system can be restored to the best state when the storage system is out of order, use the security checking tools regularly to check the security of the system, filter harmful information of Internet by using Internet access controller.
  2. Improve the learning support system
  • Real time Distance Multimedia Interactive Teaching System
    Real time distance multimedia interactive teaching system is one of the effective means of launching modern open distance education. In view of the needs of extending Shanxi distance educational computer network to the county, we established a multimedia interactive teaching system. The system has been used in distance instruction of courses for computer practice, individualized instruction, instructing multiple courses at the same time, student's group discussion, student's graduation defence through network and distance education training.
  • Classroom direct broadcasting system
    The original classroom direct broadcasting system in our university was realized through leased line by using hardware-based two-way video conferencing system. It was quite inconvenient for the distant learners to have class at the fixed time and place. Now we experiment with software-based video broadcasting system as classroom direct broadcasting system to deliver simultaneously audio, video and computer screen to the distance learners over the Internet in real time. The learners can receive information by using browsers at any places on which they can access Internet. The lecturer's "live" lecture contents are also simultaneously digitally recorded into courseware that can be downloaded or watched online later by learners.
  1. Application of educational technology
    Current trends in the field of distance education indicate a shift in theoretical frameworks and pedagogical perspectives, with student interaction at the heart of learner-centred constructivist environment. The constantly emerging new educational technology makes it possible for the students and the teachers to cooperate and interact with each other.
    On the basis of incorporating the advanced experience of Open University in the application of new educational technology, after return, I have conducted a preliminary exploration of the application of new technology in the field of distance learning in our University, written a research report, and put forward some idea and try to put it into practice.
    I made effort to apply some new digitalized learning tools which can be used in knowledge communication and sharing, such as Wiki, RSS, Podcasting etc. into teaching practice activities.
    Through analysis and practice, I think the digitalized learning tool, Wiki, can play several roles in teaching activities. Wiki can be used as students' thesis writing platform, as teachers'simple content management tool, as an environment of communication, cooperation, creation and problem solving among teachers and students, to establish a virtual teaching and research centre, to create course resource library for open university, to carry out academic research.
    RSS service can push the website's newest information to web users'desktop in time, and makes it possible for users to receive the newest information without directly accessing the website. I think RSS technology can be used to establish a teaching and learning communication platform for teachers and students in distance education, to realize an individualized search engine, to track students'learning, and also can be used as a tool for individual knowledge management and for releasing teaching information quickly.


Through four months'study in the UK, I am pleased to say that I have not only completed my research plan but also acquired a good result.

Firstly, I widened my horizons of academic research, increased my professional insights and research capability and obtained the valuable first-hand materials and information.

Secondly, my research expertise has been enhanced greatly and my professional knowledge has been enriched and expanded.

Thirdly, I have met some new friends in the Open University and set up friendly and academic relationships with them.

Fourthly, I have gained a better understanding of the British cultures and way of life. I was deeply impressed by the British friendliness, courtesy, trust, the spirit of devotion to their work.

Looking back over the past one year's work that I have done, I deeply feel that studying abroad is a great help to my teaching and technical management. The deepest point I feel is that the visiting abroad has broadened my research area.

In conclusion, my study in the UK has been not only valuable and fruitful but also enjoyable and memorable.