Helpmate: A Multimedia Web Teaching Framework
First Monday

Helpmate: A Multimedia Web Teaching Framework

The Internet is an effective means of disseminating information to students within universities. It enables one to place documents on a Web server, which students can access on campus or remotely. We have developed a Web-based collaborative system, which enables students to work through lab-based tutorials with access to a lecturer at a remote location through a Web cam, e-mail and a chat room applet. The student also has access to other students through the chat room applet and can browse through the history to check whether questions have been previously answered. Remote control software allows the lecturer to take control of the students machine in order to troubleshoot problems. Currently, the system is in everyday use and here we demonstrate the many benefits of such a collaborative environment.


Related Work


The Internet has revolutionised modern culture and universities are no exception. For example, students in computing science classes assume that notes are available online and are up-to-the-minute. Lecturers for the most part welcome this technology as it allows one to have a central repository of notes that are visible to students on campus and remotely through the Web. Web publishing also enables students to locate additional course information, such as assignments, quite easily through a lecturer's Web site.

Lab-based tutorials allow students to access the campus LAN from a computer lab and work through a scheduled lesson stored on a given Web server. Typical coursework in a networks module would include exercises in the creation of Web pages, java programming, and the use of trace route applications. A student would either print the lesson or have the lesson active on the desktop while attempting to complete the lesson.

Problems do arise for a variety of reasons and students require access to assistance. This can come in the form of post-graduate demonstrators who are present in the lab during the class or indeed the lecturer. These hands-on options however are limited for a number of reasons:

  • There can be up to 80 students scheduled (one or several labs positioned in a given time slot) for a given lesson. This makes it extremely difficult to provide individual attention to all students;
  • students may wish to work outside of the scheduled class;
  • the lecturer may find that he is repeatedly solving the same problem; and,
  • the lecturer must be present in the lab.

To counter these problems, we have implemented a Web-based collaboration environment called Helpmate. Helpmate displays the relevant course material on the Web with access to an e-mail form, which allows the student to e-mail the lecturer with questions. They can also browse the relevant lesson's chat room to see if their problem has been encountered by other classmates or post a question to the class. The lecturer can also take control of a given student's computer, configuring settings and running programs from the luxury of the office. The toolkit is on trial in the University of Ulster at present. In this paper we examine the various features of Helpmate and how they work together as an teaching aid.


Helpmate does not so much create a new tool but rather intelligently packages an existing set of communication tools in a user-friendly manner. These tools basically provide access through various media to a lecturer. It also makes attempts to utilise fully the existing knowledge base of the other students through chat room history and allowing other students to respond to problems.

The basic design of Helpmate is a Web page divided into four frames as in Figure 1. The four frames each contain a communication tool such as:

  • E-mail/remote control software;
  • Web publishing;
  • Web cam; and
  • chat room.

A typical session may be where a student logs onto the Helpmate page (which is the index page for the networks module). Students can then use Helpmate in a variety of ways by:

  • working through an online lesson requesting help online;
  • e-mailing a lecturer with a problem;
  • receiving help from their friends through the chat room;
  • letting the lecturer login to their machine and 'poke around'; and,
  • communicating using the Web cam.

Basically, all the lab tutorial notes for the networks module are stored in the /com347/ directory. The students have been given this Web page address at the start of term and told to work from these notes for the semester. They are introduced to the Web cam and chat board in the first session. They are encouraged to use the facilities when problems arise. The lecturer must be logged on too during the session for the full service to be in operation. This basically involves the lecturer opening the /com347/index.htm page, the same html page that the students are using. We are currently in the process of evaluating the student feedback questionnaires on the service.

In Figure 1, we see the standard Helpmate screen where a student has logged on and the lecturer is also logged. The people logged on within the student forum are listed on the right of the chat applet. People can come or go. We see the lecturers names preceded by an '@'. This tells us that the lecturer is the forum supervisor and he holds the power to remove interlopers from the forum.

Figure 1: Lecturer and student holding a conversation

In Figure 2, we see the student has logged on using a nickname which is taken by another student therefore the system prompts her to enter a new nickname. The student responds by entering a new name 'mary_coyle'.

Figure 2: A typical conversation using the chat applet

Should the lecturer have to remotely login to the student machine, he will ask the student to e-mail their IP address. Then the Verase program is executed allowing the lecturer to take control of their machine. The student can see the lecturer working on the computer. We may allow other students to invoke this feature in future versions. However, there is an obvious serious security risk involved in allowing students to take control of other computers. Figure 3 illustrates the view from a lecturer's computer of a remote student Web page and MS-DOS window. The lecturer is free, for example, to investigate and change class path settings to enable the student to compile the Java program.

Figure 3: A lecturer's view of a student screen

We found that students had no problems with chat rooms and quite frequently answered problems posed by their peers. There is also the ability to hold multiple private conversations as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Ability to hold multiple simultaneous conversations

Related Work

Education and training is the domain where distributed multimedia applications are of great importance. Distributed multimedia applications can facilitate student-teacher interaction in terms of conferencing as well as multimedia educational material. Distance learning programs facilitate teaching and learning activities when teachers and students cannot meet at the same place or possibly at the same time. Helpmate therefore falls within the category of 'distance learning' yet distance learning encompasses much more.

The Java-Enabled TeleCollaboration System (JETS) is a collaboration system designed for real-time sharing of Java applets (Shirmohammadi et al., 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 whiteboard which could be used for requesting help although it was not designed for this purpose.

Web Course Tools (WebCT) and Blackboard are software for the management of Web-based educational environments. Both of these packages can be used to create entire online courses, or to simply publish materials that supplement existing courses. WebCT and Blackboard provide the following tools: bulletin board, online chat, online quizzes, calendar, self-evaluation, threaded discussions, synchronous communication (real-time chat and whiteboard), assessment tools, and collaborative work groups. Helpmate differs in that we provide a 'one-stop page' with interactive tools, giving the student the ability to see the lecturer through a Web cam and indeed for the lecturer to take control of the student's computer to correct a problem. WebCT and Blackboard are more a 'total' solution which can aid greatly in the presentation and management of online course material. Helpmate could be used to complement these services.


This paper outlined some of the aspects of a multimedia collaborative environment, which provides a range of communication tools for the student working through online tutorials. We looked at various tools and how they worked together to provide the student with a richer help environment online.

Colleges and universities have only scratched the surface in utilising collaborative Web tools in delivering tutorials. Many staff face problems in taking of the Internet as the hardware requirements for truly interactive tutorials are expensive and in a state of flux. As the price of hardware continues to decrease, and as educational institutions are able to upgrade, it should become easier for faculty and staff to integrate multimedia extensively within their Web sites.

About the Authors

Kevin Curran is a Lecturer at the University of Ulster. His research areas include Java, distributed objects, networked multimedia, reflection, video transmission, and meta-object protocols.

Barry Devine is a Master's student with the University of Ulster. His research interests include Java, distributed systems, Internet technologies, and telecommunications.


S. Shirmohammadi, J.C. Oliveira, and N.D. Georganas, 1998. "Applet-Based Telecollaboration: A Network-Centric Approach," IEEE Multimedia, volume 5, number 2 (April-June), pp. 64-73.S. Shirmohammadi, J.C. Oliveira, and N.D. Georganas, 1998. "Applet-Based Telecollaboration: A Network-Centric Approach," IEEE Multimedia, volume 5, number 2 (April-June), pp. 64-73.

Editorial history

Paper received 3 March 2000; accepted 16 April 2000.

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Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Helpmate: A Multimedia Web Teaching Framework by Kevin Curran and Barry Devine
First Monday, volume 5, number 5 (May 2000)

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