Culture online: Enriching the university experience

ACUMA presentation (slides presented at the conference, Monday 4th Decemeber, 2000)

Culture online: Enriching the university experience

Universities are increasingly looking to off-campus students as their main focus for growth. Together with an on-campus population that is tending to work part-time or even full-time, it is imperative that support organisations provide an equal or superior level of service through location-independent online services.

Studies have shown that involvement in university culture improves academic outcomes[1], so the online delivery of such services is equally important to maintain universities' reputations for delivering quality education.

This paper describes a range of online services that facilitate the delivery of flexible services and support for students who are located anywhere in the world -- from across different time-zones to being on-campus at lunchtime.

by Nathan Bailey, Anna Treasure; Flexible Learning and Teaching Program, ITS and Damien Moore; Monash University Roleplayers (MURP)


There are three central propositions to the success of the strategy outlined in this paper, specifically:

This paper makes some effort towards supporting these three propositions, and also provides some references to further information / research relevant to these points.

Note: This paper is, of necessity, somewhat Monash-centric. It is hoped that the reader can make the appropriate translation to their local environment, and a bibliography of URLs in Appendix B provide more information to assist toward this end. The presentation, whilst based on this paper, will be more generic and hopefully clearly communicable to a varied audience.

Toward the virtual campus

Why the virtual campus?

Three groups are likely to ask this question: the university, the union, and students! For the university, the answer is clear and straightforward -- socialization affects academic outcomes[1], and the student population is rapidly changing from an 'on campus community' who spend the majority of their time in on campus activities to a world-wide virtual campus of students studying in different modes, at different times, with widely different needs.

For unions, the answer follows both from the above and from the themes clearly identified in most strategic plans. Firstly, all unions hilight the issue of relevance. Clearly, in order to remain relevant in light of the above changes, unions must consider the off-campus population.

But secondly, and more fundamentally, unions have identified issues of participation, involvement and ownership. Strategic plans cry out for reviews of student needs, student feedback, student participation in committees, functions and organisations, and (...)

These are difficult issues to deal with, and many expensive and inefficient means exist to pursue them. But in a world of increasingly IT convergence, unions must consider how IT can join together their disparate communities and disparate services in order to provide a unified front of consistent high-level service to a community that has an increasing diverse range of interests and live in an amazingly broad range of locations.

Finally, for students, the virtual campus offers highly relevant, personalised delivery of information and services to assist and enrich their university experience. Instead of working with a dozen different branches of the organisation, and never knowing which one they should go to for what, students are immediately presented with all the information relevant to them according to their needs and preferences.

Important events that may previously have been missed in the noise of university life are hilighted to those who are likely to be interested in them, ensuring success both for the service or information provider and for their specific class / kind of customer.

The major focus of this paper covers the ''how'' and the ''what''. The author is convinced that once organisations and individuals understand the potential riches of the virtual campus, the ''why'' will become self-evident :-)

Some essential technologies

An apology: This paper is intended to focus more on the processes and systems, than on the technology. But in order to understand how these systems can work, it is necessary to know about a few important integrating technologies that have risen in prominence in recent years.

These are:

A unified, personalised calendar

Figure 1.Events workflow

A unified daily events calendar provides ease of access to events information, particularly if all university community members are able to submit events. O-week begins and students can access their portal to find out where the nearest BBQ and beer is and when library tours are. Employers conduct career fairs and students who have recorded an interest are notified where to be and when. The university's indoor soccer grand final is scheduled and all the fans know where to go and who to cheer for.

During enrollment/orientation/course acceptance time, new students should receive their IT access ('AuthCate' at Monash) online, and will then be directed to the University portal (''), at which point they will be presented with what is happening on their campus, for their faculty, on that day. This highly-specific level of information continues to be provided throughout the year, thus ensuring students are well-informed (and that they recognise their university portal as a premier source of relevant, timely information :-).

Daily events can be posted by staff and students alike at any campus. Since the submission process happens on the portal, most information can be pre-supplied (eg. who they are, and what department/group they are from) and enables easy identification should spurious events be recorded or if abuse of the system should occur.

Each event requires certain ''metadata'' (ie. cataloging information that will help to categorise the event). For example, a simple drop-down list of event types, such as 'roleplaying' or 'buddhist mathematicians'.

This allows users to choose from a matching set of categories to indicate their areas of interest. They will then get a personalised calendar, which only lists events that are relevant to their profile/interests.

When viewing their daily or weekly events calendar, people should be able to approve events into their personal (MMS) calendars, eg. an icon that indicates that ``clicking here will add this event to your MMS calendar''. This provides integration with PDAs (eg. a palm pilot) and ensures that if someone is intending to attend an event, colleagues or friends do not try to book conflicting events at the same time.

Details recorded in the events system would include:

Figure 2.Events entry prototype

(see the prototype at )

The key to the success of this system is the categorisation, or ''metadata''. This ensures that instead of attempting to broadcast information about every event to every student, events can be ''narrowcast'' specifically to the individuals who have registered interest in those kinds of events. Narrowcasting empowers the user to choose what they want to hear -- and means that they are more likely to see what is going on, and more likely to both register their interest and actually attend.

Many organisations in the university are already wondering how to maintain contact with students, or how to contact specific student groups. This system enables organisation to achieve the benefit in directing information specifically to interested people. These ''narrowcast'' events are directed according to profile information.

Figure 3.Intellegent agents

Your IT staff should also consider unifying all the currently existing calendars into one mega calendar (automatically). Many departments provide seminars which may only occasionally be of interest to non-department people, these could easily be assimilated into the unified calendar using 'intelligent agents', which grab the pages, massage them into the appropriate format for the events database, and then insert them in as events for that department. uses a simple 'grab and cache' system for this purpose.

To provide a unified events calendar, you need to identify:

1) All the existing events resources around the university (preferably just the web-published ones). At Monash, we have identified the following:

2) All the departments that are likely to do regular events (ie. multiple events in one semester, or large events in periods like o-week). These will be the people you need to talk to, both to refine the concept and to get them to use it :-) Many of these are covered in the 'seminars' section above.

Additionally, the difference between important dates, important events and short courses needs to be established, since while all three can be publicised in such a system, there is some question of where one should draw the line between notification of events and marketing services (ie. when are you no longer providing helpful information and are instead bordering on 'spam', the electronic equivalent of ``junk mail'').

In terms of implementing such a system on a university portal, has estimated about a month's worth of technical development and about one or two months of liaison work.

Online bookings systems

Many activities require booking in advance, such as a tennis court or a room. Much of this scheduling is now done on computer, but on numerous separate computer systems that are not accessible to students.

Monash has selected 'CentaMan' for its sports and recreation bookings and membership system, and EBMS for administrating events and catering. Both offer the potential for integration to the web.

A unified booking system would have multiple access points, and should allow for group bookings as well as individual bookings.

Using a central directory service (like the MDS), regular groups of staff and students can be formed to register for team resources such as basketball courts, thus ensuring that the union can more accurately report on participation and ``consumption'' of resources.

Similarly, catering events would be greatly simplified by integrating with the unified events calendar. If people select to attend an event, RSVPs can automatically be recorded, and catering can review the report on a continuing basis to ensure that adequate food is available and appropriate charging is made. Warnings can be put in place when room capacities reach a ``high watermark'' (eg. 60% capacity).

Competition team sports are often challenged by greatly varying levels of participation due to academic or other commitments. Again, some form of integration with personal calendars can allow team captains or S&R to be forewarned of declining levels of participation, either to arrange for supplemental players or to cancel events.

Membership services

The most important service for clubs, societies and other ``non-official'' groups is a membership database. Once in place, such a database enables access-controlled online environments for these clubs, including websites, discussion areas, events notifications and online elections.

If the university already has a comprehensive directory service, membership databases and access control are quite simple. A directory group can be formed that is administered either by committee members and/or the union. This group defines which members of the University community are members of that club / society group, and can be used in providing access control to online resources if/as necessary.

Group management support

Groups are required to do some minor administration activities to ensure compliance with legal and university guidelines. Most officebearers have little experience with such processes and procedures, and many of these can be easily automated anyway. Online systems can streamline the whole administration process to ensure that group can focus on what they formed for -- sharing their areas of interest.

Short courses and personal development

A significant part of personal growth at university relates to what occurs outside of class. Students like to study arts such as pottery, music or jewelry-making and learn new languages. Where possible, these activities should be well-supported with online integration, such as course notes, self-learning and self-test facilities.

Often there are a range of different providers of courses, including union provides ones of general interest (eg. music, crafts), faculty provided ones of specific skill (eg. languages) and academic assistance provided ones of learning skills (eg. essay writing).

Typically, students needs and interests for various courses varies throughout the semester (eg. students are unlikely to be interested in essay writing in o-week or during exams). Again, the unified events calendar can assist in scheduling and promoting courses, by reviewing existing commitments and opportunities and appropriately aligning with or working around them.

Most of these services should have at least some form of online learning and review available, so that students can check out what the course is about, and refresh their memories after completing a course.

Employment and career development

Many students need to work part-time to support their studies, and all students expect some form of work upon graduation. Again, it is important that the support for these services be provided online in an integrated, easy to access way.

There are two foci in providing employment assistance, either by examining specific skills that individual students have and looking for jobs (eg. tutors in mathematics) or by promoting opportunities to groups of students (eg. IT-related jobs to IT students).

The virtual campus should promote some kind of 'online CV', where students record both their areas of interest and their areas of competence. This information can be selectively released to various areas in order for them to be contacted about opportunities that align with the interests and skills.

Most universities already provide some level of employment support, but often employment opportunities for students and employment opportunities for staff are handled separately. Unions can promote tighter integration with the university simply by promoting the hiring of current students and graduates, and promoting university opportunities to students. Students make excellent candidates as they are already familiar with the university environment and are already maintaining some form of social network within the community.

Counselling, language and learning support

Where students have difficulties in any area of their learning or life in general, the university needs to provide appropriate emotional and possibly financial support to ensure that they can successfully complete their studies.

Often, the hardest part of such a process is recognising the existence of a need and determining to pursue some formal assistance in addressing it. The virtual campus can make this easier by targeting services to students who are at risk, either by the seasonal periods or their participation in their courses.

Demographic information about past customers of such services can be used to identified at risk groups, and profiling information from academic and administrative areas could then be used to anonymously promote opportunities for assistance (ie. without necessarily revealing the identities to the service groups).

The more information students provide about themselves, the richer the service they can receive. A good analogy is the much vaunted service model of They build rich customer profiles and then promote services and products based on aggregate information. ''People who bought this book also bought these books,'' ''people who like this artist also like these artists,'' and similar trends analyses provide information to customers to make new choices that they may not have made before.

Encouraging feedback

An important theme in many of the strategic plans is soliciting feedback from students. Three systems are proposed for facilitating feedback to students, specifically, discussion areas for student Q&A, regular polls on topics of interest and a central knowledgebase of student feedback that can track themes and be analysed for trends.

The knowledgebase can simply be a database that holds a record for each piece of student feedback, with some capacity to categorise them for later analyse. All the Q&A discussion can be recorded in there (...) Where possible, submissions should be linked with available demographic information (to provide context to the question), and then anonymised to ensure privacy.

Where possible, event trackers on computer screens should allow staff to quickly record (eg. with tap on a touch screen) in-person requests, especially in a high traffic area such as information counters (eg. the Monash 'Union desk'). If multiple people are serving there, themes may not be identified for some time, but if some kind of tracking is enabled, statistics can indicate things like poor signage (lots of questions about directions), (...)

display value of union to university and students

Partnering and promoting services

It is imperative for unions to see that there are a growing number of online service providers that are specifically targetting the university student market, eg. and . Many of these sites provide services in direct competition with those provided by universities and unions.

Whether you regard these as allies in the provision of service to your students or competitors is essentially a strategic decision. If you do not have the resources to provide some services, you may like to consider partnering with these organisations at some level, to provide the services you can't provide. In turn, they can promote your services to the students from your institution who visit their site.

Unions should also look to the greater Internet for possible synergies. The opportunity of chat rooms has already been discussed, but what about the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)? Many universities provide cinema services on a regular basis, the quality of these screenings can be promoted with reference to an independant arbiter, full of rich information and trivia to enhance the cinematic experience.

However, the first place to look for strategic partnerships should be at home -- the university already offers many services to students, and unions can synergise together with them to provide higher levels of service.

For example, at Monash University, we have a recreational library, John Medley Library, which provides many excellent resources, including books, music and posters. However, with their limited budget, there are many resources they can't obtain, and services they can't provide.

On the other hand, the University library subscribes to many services and journals, mostly for academic purposes, but many of these journals cover areas of interest for students, especially journals and magazines of a less formal nature. Similarly, the University libraries provide a broad range of resources on other areas of interest, such as travel and (...)

With so many services available for students, it is essential to maintain some form of profile which allows targetting specific services to students. On the other hand, care must be taken not to violate privacy of individual students, eg. Monash runs a needle exchange, but any form usage tracking of this service is likely to be highly counterproductive!

In designing profiles and targetting services, unions should review industry leaders such as, and consider their personalised emails, service and product suggestions and marketing methods.

Committee system

Committees can be the bane of people's lives, or they can be an efficient means of refining ideas and getting things done. A big part of the difference between these two extremes is in planning for meetings and following through on outcomes.

A simple committee system can greatly facilitate these purposes. A formalised format for agendas and minutes which are stored online in a 'document repository' allows:

Where such systems are open for review by members, they can also facilitate transparency and accountability.

Self-management: ownership and accountability

Any portal must provide for users to refine their profile and review their interactions with the service provider. An important part of transparency and accountability for unions is allowing students to view union records relating to them. This means:

Staff needs: An HR portal

It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider addressing the needs of staff with similar services to those described for students in this paper. Some of the facilities described (eg. the committee system) can also be used in staff contexts, but an important ingredient that is missing for staff is support for their career development. This is most easily addressed through the provision of Human Resources portal, including the following services:

Appendix A: Review of ACUMA members' strategic plans


For each university listed in, an attempt was made to identify the EO/PA of the General Manager of the student union or equivalent body. This individual was queried regarding the general availability of a strategic plan and budget information.

Each of the strategic plans were read, looking for consensus and dissonance, and also for the amount of focus on ''Virtual Campus'' issues (ie. the increasingly off-campus student population).

The budgets were employed as a quick reference against the latter point -- how much of the union's resources are being invested into IT, which presumably (but not necessarily) indicates the level of commitment to initiatives like supporting the virtual campus.


Of the 41 institutions surveyed, 6 supplied strategic plans. The rest either did not have a strategic plan, or were not prepared to release the document. (A special thanks to those who did release them in confidence :-)

The following trends were observed:


Appendix B: Bibliography

1: See and

2: For more information about portals, please see, (unfortunately only works in IE5),, and You may be familiar with commercial portals such as, my.netscape or my.excite.

3: For more information about directory services, please see and You may be familiar with Netscape/UMich's LDAP (Microsoft call it 'ActiveDirectory'), or Novell's NDS, or Sun's NIS, or X.500. These are similar products attempting to fill the same niche of information and authentication.

4: For more information about calendaring systems, see and Free calendar client/servers include

5. For more information about access control, please see

6. For more information about synchronous and asynchronous discussion group services, please see and

About the author...

Nathan Bailey has been involved with the Internet since 1990, and has served in various student-centred roles including IT support, tutoring and international student associations. He has also conducted professional computer training and run his own consulting business, including appearances in the media.

Most recently, Nathan has been involved in the design and implementation of Monash's staff and student portal, My.Monash (

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