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Peer-to-peer networking collaboration within education.

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. This takes place "on the fly." The toolkit is on trial in the University of Ulster at present. In this article we look more closely at the various features and how they work together as a project collaboration aid.

Our goal is to build a networked environment, which supplies a toolkit to support coordinated collaboration. This toolkit is being applied and tested by a distributed group of scientists using multiple instruments. The participants include research groups at the University of Ulster, the University of Maryland, and UCL.


Helpmate attempts to intelligently package a group of communication tools to overcome previously stated problems. These tools basically provide access through various media to collaborators. It also makes attempts to fully use the existing knowledge base of the other educators through the chat room history and allowing other educators to respond to problems. A typical session may be where two educators agree to commence a meeting online. Therefore both go to the Helpmate URL page. They can then use Helpmate in a variety of ways:

* they can share remote documents and make real-time amendments (both see changes);

* they can use instant messaging to chat to each other;

* they can receive help from colleagues through the chat room; the Lecturer also posts answers to frequently asked questions in the chat room--thus using it as a type of bulletin board;

* they can let oneanother login to their machine and "poke around"--basically run programs, check code, execute code, and so forth, debug the problem remotely;

* they can communicate using the web-cam and audio;

* they can use the Translation Software to convert their native language into a specified foreign language in real-time so that each person uses their preferred native language; and

* the whiteboard can be used to allow doodles or models to be sketched for each member in the project to see or indeed to make amendments.

In Figure 1, we see the standard Helpmate screen where two educators have logged on. The students logged on within the educator forum are listed on the right of the chat applet. Students can come or go. We see the project leaders names preceded by an "@." This tells us that guest 03005 is the forum supervisor and holds the power to kick people of the forum who shouldn't be there. This should not be a problem within most settings. It could be a problem if people from outside spot what's happening and try to have some fun at our expense. As can be seen in Figure 1, the four frames each contain a communication tool such as e-mail/remote control software, web publishing (HTML lab notes), web-cams, and chat room applets. The Whiteboard is a pop-up window. In Figure 2, we see the educator has logged on using a nickname which is taken by another educator therefore the system prompts her to enter a new nickname. The educator responds by entering a new name "mary_coyle."

Should the lecturer have to remotely login to the educator's machine--he will get the educator to e-mail their IP address (which is discussed earlier). Then the Verase program is executed allowing the lecturer to take control of their machine. The educator can see the lecturer working on the machine.

Other educators may be allowed to invoke this feature in future versions--there is however, serious security risk involved in allowing educators to take control of another educator's machine. The educator is then free, for example to poke around and change class path settings to enable the educator to compile a molecular simulation program.


Live webcams need constant "live" feeds and generally need to run server software on each computer. To overcome this limitation with educators who access the Web through slow modems we implemented the web cam software using JavaCamPush. JavaCamPush ( is a Java applet supplied integrated as part of Webcam32. Using JavaCamPush, an Internet Explorer or Netscape user can view real time live streaming video from Webcam32.

When an educator with a web cam connected to their machine opens the helpmate portal web page that contains the JavaCamPush applet, JavaCamPush will contact Webcam32 over the Internet/LAN and ask for a stream of live video frames. The JavaCamPush applet will obtain the images and display them one after another. For the browser to form a connection to Webcam32 to receive the stream of images, the JavaCamPush applet must know how to connect to Webcam32 to receive the images. This is achieved by coding into the HTML of the web page that contains the JavaCamPush applet, the TGP/TP address of the PC running Webcam32. If both educators have web cams then both can see and speak to each other as in Figure 3. Otherwise only the educator with the web cam will appear "live" in the frame window.


The system was tested on Pentium III PC's, 300mhz, 64MB Ram with Pace Webcams over a 10MB Ethernet Local Area Network and the Internet to each of the research departments involved in the projects. All machines were running Windows 95/98.

The absence of adequate keyboarding skills exacerbated the difficulties of e-mail/chat discussions for some, however we found that educators had no problem with the concept of chat rooms and quite frequently answered problems posed by their peers. There is also the ability to hold multiple conversations.

The overall tendency was for educators to use the chat room for communications, which were more specifically about that particular project, while e-mail was used for general queries that arose during the over time. Eight percent of educators found the helpmate environment a distraction and preferred to work "over the phone." Educators felt a range of skills were developed as a result of the project. These included chat room and video conferencing (78%), clearer graphic communication (32%), and patience (12%). Selected results of a survey are displayed in Table 1.

Language Translation

We have incorporated the real-time translation package Systran ( into Helpmate to allow scientists to type in their native language and have the software perform the translation. This has proven to be one of the strengths of the toolkit. For example, this would be a typical translation transcript from English into French and German in a three way international collaboration chat room meeting performed by the software.

Translation Example 1:

Kevin (English): Can you send me the paper by Kelly on molecules by e-mail?

Pierre (French): Pouvez-vous m'envoyer le papier par Kelly sur des molecules parl'e-mail?

Hans (German): Konnen Sie mir das Papier durch Kelly auf molecules durch e-mailschicken?

Translation Example 2:

Kevin (English): Thank you my friend for sending me that paper earlier today.

Pierre (French): Merci mon ami de m'envoyer que papier plus tot aujourd'hui.

Hans (German): Danke mein Freund fur das Senden ich daB Papier frith heute.


At present, Helpmate has become a spin-out company from the University of Ulster due to interest from venture capitalists. Thus the application is changing from a purely online tutorial environment to a more general collaboration environment. A design goal of Helpmate is that it should be "open" in the sense that easy access to the environment by third party applications can be enabled. We have incorporated an interactive whiteboard application called E-beam ( It is also envisaged that third party applications for vertical markets such as construction (CAD), engineering (CAM), medical, and others will also be viewed and used within the overall environment.

We are also constructing a meeting manager, which will call and schedule an online meeting, meeting contributors will be selected from a contacts database and invited by e-mail to join an online meeting at a prearranged time. The meeting reminder function will e-mail reminders to the group at 7 days, 1 day, 30 minute and 5 minutes. Contributors can be within the same organisation and communicate across a company network or can be located elsewhere and communicate by VPN or by the public Internet. Communication is through Web cam audio visual, online chat or by interactive whiteboard. The chat function is open to everyone the online whiteboard is visible to everyone but managed by one person--the meeting manager, audio visual is one-to-one, meeting manager to contributor rather than contributor to contributor. The entire meeting can be saved, compressed, encrypted, and archived off-site for future replay.


Distance learning facilitates collaboration when scientists cannot meet at the same place. Helpmate therefore falls within the category of "distance learning" yet distance learning encompasses much more--however, we are content with the term distance learning tool being associated with Helpmate. Therefore a lot of research into distance learning on the Web is related. The Java-Enabled TeleCollaboration System (JETS) is a collaboration system designed for real-time sharing of Java applets (Shirmohammadi, Oliveira, & Georganas, 1998). Using any Java-enabled web browser, multiple users in a telecollaboration session are able to share generic applications in the form of Java applets. JETS is aimed at the sharing of applications rather than the presentation of a tutorial and access in real-time to help in various forms. JETS provides a shared white-board, which could be used for requesting help although it was not designed for this purpose.

Remote Collaboration (RC) is a tool created at the University of California, Davis, to enhance interaction between humans using Internet connectivity (Blake, 2000). It combines a number of features such as chat, annotatable images, sound messages compressed for transmission, shared viewing of web pages, and a collaborative writing tool. Helpmate differs mainly in the interactivity provided by the web cam along with the live audio and the remote control of the educator's machine. An example of an industrial collaborative environment is REDISE (Jopke & Lother, 1999). This collaboration is realised by using a net conferencing system. The net conferencing system allows the communication by video, audio, shared whiteboard, and shared text editor as well as the usage of shared applications. The main difference again like most tools is that the tools are all separate applications, which must be invoked individually by the users to conduct a session. We feel that any collaboration environment that is to be used in a n educational setting must operate as a "whole" and not depend on educators to invoke individual components.

The BSCW system (Appelt & Mambrey, 1999) is based on the metaphor of shared workspaces. The users access these workspaces with their normal web browsers. The system allows users to collaborate using text messaging and document sharing. The system however does not contain the functionality richness of Helpmate as it provides no interactive tools such as video/audio or whiteboards. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics teachers partner with other high schools to create teacher collaborations. The collaboration provides teachers with an opportunity to integrate technology and new approaches into an existing course or adopt a new course. Teachers involved in collaborations meet twice a week with the class and once a week to plan and to discuss issues. Collaborations are effective for new teachers and teachers teaching out of field (


This article outlined some of the aspects of a multimedia collaborative environment, which provides a range of communication tools for the Scientist whilst collaborating on projects. We have developed and extensively tested a set of collaboration tools in the domain of online educational collaboration. A style of rapid-prototyping was employed in this development, such that the users of the software were involved in its inception and in every stage of its development. This development will result in a toolkit of software that supports collaboration in education, by a geographically distributed set of lecturers/teachers, observing and controlling remote tutorials.

The resulting prototype is a specification for the next generation of the toolkit. We will separate the tools into a set of applications that can then be used to support collaboration. In particular, they will support a web-based interface that connects to servers for viewing remote data and collaborating in online collaborations.

Some problems educators may face are the hardware requirements that are necessary to run the tools that compose Helpmate. However, as the price of hardware continues to decrease, and organisations are able to upgrade, scientists will be able to integrate multimedia extensively within their personal project web sites. Helpmate is the beginning of such tools.
Table 1

Evaluation Results

 % Educators

Found E-mail Useful 54
Did not feel information
 overload 78
Prefer this environment 92
Found Chat helpful 88
Found Video helpful 70
Amount of time spent
 learning tools worthwhile 85
Found experience enjoyable 79
Felt part of a group 84
Felt that group collaboration
 enabled higher quality
 lab sessions 67


Appelt, W., & Mambrey, P. (1999). Experiences with the BSCW shared workspace system as the backbone of a virtual learning environment for educators. Proceedings of the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications ED-MEDIA 99. Charlottesville: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Blake, R. (2000). RC-Remote collaboration-computer mediated communication. University of California, Davis. Language Learning & Technology, 4,(l) 120-136.

Jopke, K., & Lother, M. (1999, September). REDISE-Remote and distributed software engineering. EKA '99--Conference on Development and Operation of Complex Automation Systems (pp. 44-48), Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany.

Shirmohammadi, S., Oliveira, J.C., & Georganas, N.D. (1998 April-June). Applet-based telecollaboration: A network-centric approach. IEEE Multimedia Magazine, 5(2), 64-73.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Curran, Kevin
Publication:Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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