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2009-06-30 The nature of our intranet

posted Jun 30, 2009, 2:10 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Jul 16, 2009, 11:45 PM by Eddie Woo ]
For consolidation purposes, this has been identified as my final submission in response to question H1.1 to H6.1 from Fuel for Project Registers.

Contents

  1. 1 H1.1: Explain the nature and function of the intranet in the context of the school.
    1. 1.1 The intranet is a database
    2. 1.2 The intranet is a communications system
    3. 1.3 The intranet is a multimedia system
  2. 2 H1.2: Identify instances of the 7 processes undertaken by various participants, end users and people in the environment within this information system.
    1. 2.1 Collecting
    2. 2.2 Organising
    3. 2.3 Analysing
    4. 2.4 Storing and retrieving
    5. 2.5 Processing
    6. 2.6 Transmitting and receiving
    7. 2.7 Displaying
  3. 3 H2.2: Explain how the intranet is a solution for an identified need, with reference to all 7 processes.
    1. 3.1 Collecting - providing data for the system
    2. 3.2 Organising - ensuring that information is useful for end users
    3. 3.3 Analysing - ensuring that all data ultimately becomes information
    4. 3.4 Storing and retrieving - to ensure that data/information can be retained for continued distribution
    5. 3.5 Processing - to keep data up-to-date
    6. 3.6 Transmitting and receiving - to allow participants and users to interact with the system
    7. 3.7 Displaying - so that the information can be used
  4. 4 H3.1: Evaluate and discuss the current/potential effect of the intranet on (a) individual students, (b) the school population (staff and students alike), and (c) the JRAHS information environment.
    1. 4.1 Effects on individual students
    2. 4.2 Effects on the school population
    3. 4.3 Effects on the James Ruse information environment
  5. 5 H4.1: What emerging information needs is James Ruse likely to face in the next 5, 20 and 50 years? How will the intranet meet these needs?
    1. 5.1 Laptops and videos
    2. 5.2 Publication and distribution
    3. 5.3 Form-filling
    4. 5.4 Collaboration in projects
    5. 5.5 Need for personalisation + teachers = more subdomains
  6. 6 H6.1: Based on your answer to the H4.1 question, propose a solution for the 2010 apocalipticDesign team to develop and implement next year.

H1.1: Explain the nature and function of the intranet in the context of the school.

As stated by the project brief, the purpose of the intranet in the context of the school is to provide a facility that "engages student learning, empowers better teaching practice, and, enriches school life". The intranet is able to do this by providing a central location for members of the school community to internally distribute relevant content with each other, including news, learning resources, and various multi-purpose multimedia presentations (such as digital photo albums).



The intranet is able to function as it exploits a range of vastly different technologies simultaneously. Recalling that a system is a collection of different parts that coexist for a common purpose, the intranet can be thought of as the epitome of a truly systematic system, bringing together features typically associated with the very distinct categories of databases, communication systems, and multimedia systems.

The intranet is a database

The intranet can be correctly classified as a database; specifically, a relational-database-driven hypermedia system. Due to the closed nature of the software (Google Sites) that the Intranet runs on, it is not possible to say exactly how this database works with unquestionable precision; however, by studying similar systems, one can understand how the intranet could potentially operate as a database.

I examined the workings of another relational-database-driven hypermedia system, specifically, a web forum that runs on the open-source software Simple Machines Forum. Using an interface for automatic SQL queries, I discovered that this software works by organising various groups of data as separate but related tables, and then constructing attributes and calculated fields to draw connections between these tables. For example, a field from the table of user accounts was used as the source for an attribute in another table that described the individual authors of messages in a discussion thread, hence allowing administrators to identify the author of any given post. This level of sophistication is only possible with a relational database.

I believe it is safe to assume that, although different in specific details, the JRAHS school intranet database functions in a fundamentally similar manner - by drawing connections between different, but related tables.

For example, I am very confident in declaring that every page on the intranet is a record on an extremely large table, described by fields such as filename, page title, page body, attachments, comments, creation date, creation user, last update date, last update user, etc. This theory is confirmed with a quick visit to the site map of any site that runs on the Google Sites software, which displays a simplified version of the database table that I have just described, strongly implying that my description is very accurate:


The intranet is a communications system

The JRAHS intranet relies heavily on communication systems, as it runs on software that is intended for the creation of published websites - hence the name, Google Sites. Indeed, it would be impossible to access the intranet without a communications system, unless one had direct access to the web server - owned by Google - that hosts the JRAHS intranet.

Every staff member, student, and JRAHS community member who accesses the JRAHS intranet does so with an internet connection. Content that is summoned is sent from the web server at the Google corporation, which (through a series of complex exchanges) is sent to the client computer - the computer of the person accessing the JRAHS intranet.

This is a classic example of a communications system at work - the sender is the Google web server, the receiver is the computer of the person accessing the JRAHS intranet, the message is the content that is being summoned, and the medium is a highly sophisticated global system of interconnected computer networks known as the Internet. Various protocols are necessary for this process, but the most important protocol by far is HTTP - hypertext transfer protocol.

The intranet is a multimedia system

"Multimedia" is defined as the use of different media to present a message, or to entertain1. The JRAHS intranet is capable of using all seven media types, including:
  • Text - the majority of data/information on the JRAHS intranet is text data, as text data is highly bandwidth-efficient, and capable of conveying the majority data/information that the JRAHS intranet handles.
  • Hypertext - being a hypermedia system, the intranet must make frequent use of hypertext, particularly for navigation, as navigation is a highly important feature of hypermedia systems.
  • Numbers - the JRAHS intranet uses numbers largely for administration purposes; the date of every change to the system (no matter how small) is recorded, and most likely recorded as a number.
  • Audio - although the intranet rarely uses audio, it can be easily integrated into the intranet as a file attachment
  • Images - the intranet makes frequent use of graphics for decoration - for example, the numerous heading images, backgrounds, and so on; however, images are also found in the form of photographs, which appear frequently.
  • Video - the intranet is (in theory) easily integrated with Google Videos; however, the NSW Department of Education and Training has blocked access to this service using its highly restrictive content filter. While material uploaded to the collection of videos on the intranet is still considered part of the system, it is not accessible using the school's internet connection. Users must access such material from home. A solution to this would be to attach video files as attachments, although the practicality of this solution is highly questionable.

1 Ware, Cheleski & Chivers, 2001. Information Processes and Technology: HSC Course, pg 268.

H1.2: Identify instances of the 7 processes undertaken by various participants, end users and people in the environment within this information system.

Collecting

  • Participants example(s): An instance of collecting done by a participant is when a member of the apocalipticDESIGN logs into the intranet using their apocalipticDESIGN user account, and notes any modifications that have been made to their system since the last time they worked on their portfolio. The participant collects data relating to what has been changed, when it was changed, and who was responsible for the change. I personally had to do this many times throughout the development of the system, particularly with the past paper archive (which Mr. Woo frequently uploads to without my immediate knowledge).
  • End users example(s): An instance of collecting done by the end user is when a student, an end user with read-only access to the intranet, downloads a series of past papers for a certain subject. This data is being collected from the student's point of view, as the intranet is an external source of data for this student.

Organising

  • Participant example(s): Participants frequently organise (and reorganise) the data that they are responsible for, particularly relating to file formats. For example, a member of the apocalipticDESIGN team may have received a .DOC document from the previous version of the JRAHS intranet that they want to make displayable on a webpage on the intranet (as opposed to a separate file). The participant will organise this data as plain text, and reformat it; alternatively, they may wish to copy and paste this data into the WYSIWYG editor that Google Sites uses, and let the server-side software organise the data.
  • End user example(s): End users may choose to re-organise data to suit their own needs. For example, a student may see a page on the intranet that they wish to be able to access without a network connection, and subsequently this student copies the contents of the page into a word processor, hence reorganising rendered HTML into a word processor format such as RTF, DOC or ODT.

Analysing

  • Participant example(s): Various forms of analysis are done by participants, as they need frequent feedback for self-evaluation. An example of analysis undertaken by participants is when participants use software on Google Analytics to identify patterns and trends regarding Intranet usage. This is done by acquiring a large amount of data about visitors to the site (e.g. access time, network properties, location, et cetera), compiling it, and conducting various forms of analysis, including sorting, searching, labelling, calculating, and graphically representing. Data about visitors to the site becomes information - for example, in May 2009, Mr. Woo used Google Analytics to identify not only the most popular ISPs used by Intranet visitors, but the most popular hours of the day for Intranet access.
  • End user example(s): An end user may find the naming convention used on the website counter-productive, preferring to use their own naming convention. For example, a year 10 student studying for the Maths half yearly may find that "2006 paper - do this by Wednesday.pdf" is a more useful filename than "yr10_hy_2006.pdf", an example of labelling data to make it more meaningful.

Storing and retrieving

  • Participant example(s): Participants are constantly using Google Sites as a form of network storage - storage that is accessible, 24 hours a day, but physically located at another computer. Not only does the entire Intranet stored on servers that are run by Google, but even support documentation for the Intranet - for example, this project register entry - is stored on network storage. However, participants also use local and portable storage; Mr. Woo often provided members of apocalipticDESIGN with new material to manage by transporting the said material using USB mass storage flash drives. The reason that he did this instead of sending the material using a network connection is because using a network connection is much slower due to bandwidth restraints.
  • End user example(s): An instance of storing and retrieving done by the end user is when the end user downloads a PDF file from the intranet (storing), and opens it later for use (retrieving).

Processing

  • Participant example(s): Processing is done by participants to update material and to correct any problems with the data. Both cases are very common. An example of processing done is by a participant is when I processed every past paper in the past paper archives in April 2009, fixing formulas with blacked-out numbers, editing PDF files to ensure PDF/A standards compliancy, and renaming all files to match a naming convention - all examples of processing. Another example of processing is when I recreated past paper packages to contain files that were previously not available.
  • End user example(s): End users may process data to suit their own needs - for example, an end user may download a range of different documents from the intranet and lossless compress them using the ZIP format, in order to conserve storage space.

Transmitting and receiving

  • Participant example(s): The Intranet can only be accessed in two ways - through a network connection, or directly at the server. As it is practically impossible for anyone from JRAHS to access the intranet directly at the Google server, all participants must access the Intranet through network connections. An example of transmitting and receiving is when a file is uploaded to the Intranet - the file is divided into separate packages, which pass through a series of mediums, network devices (such as routers, switches, hubs, et cetera), software firewalls, and so on, but ultimately finding their way to the Google Sites server. The server acknowledges the acquisition of the uploaded data, both on a hardware level (with signals that indicate the successful reception of the data) and a software level (with various messages for the participant in the Google Sites web interface).
  • People in the environment example(s): People in the environment may send data/information to system developers for publication to the intranet, via communication systems such as email, instant messaging, et cetera.

Displaying

  • Participant example(s): Participants must display everything that they create in order to ensure that their production appears similar on the end user's computer. An example of displaying is when a participant creates a certain layout for a certain page on the intranet, and allows the site to render it to see if it is visually appealing. The site's rendering of the page is then converted into an image that is sent to the frame buffer, followed by the VDU.

H2.2: Explain how the intranet is a solution for an identified need, with reference to all 7 processes.

The intranet is a solution to the need of the school for an information system that can be used to distribute relevant content within the JRAHS school community. 

Collecting - providing data for the system

Data and information that may be of use to members of the community are collected into the system from a range of sources; examples of such material include photographs, statistics, news, and learning resources (activities, past papers, marking schemes, and program outlines); this collection is essential in providing the material that "engages student learning, empowers better teaching practice, and, enriches school life", or else the system would have no material to manage.

Organising - ensuring that information is useful for end users

Such material is usually organised into file formats that are suitable for distribution - for example, the Portable Document Format (PDF), used widely throughout the site, is suitable for distribution as documents are optimised for consistent display (fonts are embedded, et cetera). By organising documents into distribution-suitable formats as opposed to (or in addition to) non-distribution-suitable formats, the layout of documents displayed on the end user's computer can be controlled with greater detail, ensuring that documents display correctly; for example, a document formatted as Microsoft Word .DOC is not ideal for distribution purposes as typefaces are not embedded, which means that the resulting document's layout is hypothetically unpredictable. 

Hence, due to the organising of information on the intranet in specific, standards-compliant ways, the JRAHS intranet is able to function successfully as a system to distribute relevant information to the masses in a way that allows such information to remain meaningful and usable.

Analysing - ensuring that all data ultimately becomes information

Analysis is used to add meaning to data that enters the Intranet, turning it into information. For example, the documents in many collections (such as past paper archives) follow individual filename naming conventions, making filenames more meaningful to the end user. A practical instance would be the renaming of a hypothetical document, "this year's maths paper final copy.pdf", to "yr10_hy_2011.pdf", an example of labelling; information identifying the document is obtained from the document's contents, and the application of such information in the filename makes the document more meaningful as the end user can now clearly see what this PDF file contains.

Storing and retrieving - to ensure that data/information can be retained for continued distribution

Storing and retrieving is essential to the system, as a lack of storing and retrieving would result in the system's inability to retain data/information, and a subsequent inability to continuously distribute data/information. The system stores and retrieves to server computers owned by Google, a form of network storage from the perspective of the system's participants and end users.

Processing - to keep data up-to-date

Processing must occur periodically, to ensure that the system is proactive in fulfilling its mission of being a solution to  the need of the school community for a system to distribute content internally. Data and information must be updated as soon as it becomes outdated (or as soon as errors are detected), in order to minimise the amount of people that are unintentionally misinformed.

Transmitting and receiving - to allow participants and users to interact with the system

Transmitting and receiving must occur, as the intranet is designed to be, in many respects, a communication system: data and information are distributed amongst community members. It is only because of transmitting and receiving that the JRAHS intranet is able to function as a system for content distribution, as opposed to merely content storage

Data is constantly being exchanged between the Google server and the many clients (belonging to end users and participants) that connect to it. The process of transmitting and receiving is truly ubiquitous - it is occurring from the moment a user starts connecting to the website in their web browser, to the final moments of use when the user is receiving the final portions of the data/information that they had required.

Displaying - so that the information can be used

Information is completely useless if the human at the end of the cycle cannot see it, hear it, or perceive it in any other form. Displaying (for instance, the printing of a syllabus) is the process that completes the role of the information system in distributing material, ensuring that such material can ultimately be used.

H3.1: Evaluate and discuss the current/potential effect of the intranet on (a) individual students, (b) the school population (staff and students alike), and (c) the JRAHS information environment.

The intranet has profound effects on all three groups mentioned. There are many advantages and disadvantages for the groups mentioned, but the effect is overall beneficial. This is an evaluation that is discussed below.

Effects on individual students

Individual students have access to learning resources, such as past papers, syllabuses, and other course-related materials, from any location with a computer and an internet connection. Students no longer need to rely on their teachers to supply these resources, as they can acquire these resources in their own time; this means that class time does not need to be spent on distribution of materials, and subsequently, more class time can be spent on learning and practicing course content. This can be seen as a manifestation of the social and ethical issue of the changing nature of work; however, in this case, it is arguably changing for the better.

Some students have also seen the need to be more responsible due to the introduction of the new Google-Sites-based intranet. In particular, a number of junior students have found that they are no longer able to procrastinate for their Student Research Project for science, as project logs for this project are now composed on the intranet, where entries are timestamped.

Effects on the school population

The school saves a lot of money by using the intranet. For example, the distribution of weekly newsletters is now almost entirely dependent on the intranet, with only a few copies being printed for each issue. However, this may raise the social and ethical issue of privacy: all the data and information on the JRAHS intranet is intended for use by JRAHS school community members only, and it would only take one person to leak the entire intranet, simply by giving away their login credentials.

In some cocurricular groups, the intranet is relied on very heavily for news. An example is the James Ruse Cadet Unit, which is phasing out the practice of sending emails to notify cadets of upcoming events. The unit also distributes forms (e.g. for field exercises such as bivouacs) in PDF format via the intranet. In recent parades, it has been common practice for the officers to conclude with "see the intranet for more information", or a similar phrase.

The social and ethical issues of health, safety, and ergonomics are also raised by the implementation of this intranet. Continued computer usage may lead to repetitive strain injuries and vision impairment, and the problem is only compounded by the proliferation of portable internet-access devices such as mobile phones, which are very occasionally used to access the James Ruse intranet also.

Effects on the James Ruse information environment

In Information Processes and Technology, the environment is where an information system receives the data input; however, an information system is also capable of having effects on the environment using its output.

In the case of the James Ruse intranet, the environment consists of everyone who provides data for the system but is not directly responsible for the collection of such data. Note that this role is not permanent, and that people in the environment often become end users or participants, simply by logging into their intranet account (and perhaps submitting content to the intranet).

The effect on people in the environment is that they must spend time (and/or other resources) to allow system participants to collect data from them. For example, teachers and students have been interviewed and recorded for the purpose of broadcast via the James Ruse intranet; they are considered 'people in the environment' as they provided data for the information system, but were not responsible for its collection.

H4.1: What emerging information needs is James Ruse likely to face in the next 5, 20 and 50 years? How will the intranet meet these needs?

Laptops and videos

The NSW Department of Education and Training is interested in providing secondary students, including those from James Ruse, with laptops, as has been reported extensively by news sources and online forums:
These laptops will enforce internet filtering at the client level, meaning that it will be virtually impossible to bypass such filtering. However, they will be equipped with a range of proprietary production and office software packages, mainly provided by Adobe and Microsoft.

Due to the school's apparent enthusiasm for the introduction of these laptops, as well as the inclusion of video-editing software (Adobe Premiere), it is highly likely that students will be increasingly producing video content for educational purposes. It is also highly likely that students and teachers would want such content to be distributed, for collaboration and assessment.

The video service used by the Intranet, Google Videos, is categorised and blocked by the DET internet filter, a notable instance of the social and ethical issue of censorship. However, if this service were to be removed from the DET filter's list of blocked websites, it will be an excellent way to meet the information needs of James Ruse students and teachers in terms of video distribution.

Publication and distribution

In the coming years, the school will continue to produce publications for its community to use, such as the yearbook. The weekly newsletter is already published on the school intranet. As the school continues to produce publications, it will start looking for new ways to distribute such material. For example, the annual James Ruse yearbook is currently distributed via print, and requires a lot of time and money for printing - there needs to be a copy for every student.

The James Ruse intranet could satisfy the constant need for this type of publication and broadcasting. In this example, the entire yearbook could be distributed as a PDF file (with images in high resolution, of course), and then anyone interested in having a paper copy could order one. This would save a lot of money.

This practice is by no means restricted to major publications, or news - it could be used for distribution of anything that would traditionally be done by paper. Permission notes distributed via the intranet would not only save a lot of money, but also remove the hassle of lost notes; teachers and school administration are often extremely frustrated at the amount of students who lost permission notes.

Distribution via the intranet could raise copyright and privacy issues, as it is much easier to distribute digital copies of publications. It is difficult to say when these issues will arise, as it depends on the behaviour of people and their adoption of this technology; 20 years is a good estimate for the amount of time it will take for this to be a substantial problem.

The school may be tempted to address these issues with digital rights management - the use of technology to prevent unauthorised distribution. However, digital rights management (also referred to as digital restrictions management or DRM), has been demonstrated to be ineffective after its use by the music industry, as it—
  • was seen as an intrusion on end users' privacy and security, as was the case with the 2005 Sony BMG CD copy protection scandal;
  • was easily bypassed with counter-technologies such as DeCSS;
  • was easily bypassed by using analogue methods, as is the case with people using mobile phones to record movies in cinemas
The school should instead address these issues with education instead, a lesson that would need to be taught to students anyhow in what will very probably be an extremely "information-rich" age.

Form-filling

As mentioned, permission notes and forms in general are traditional phenomena which could soon be replaced by digital counterparts. Their digital counterparts could be submitted digitally as well, which would save money (by saving paper), but also be easier for later use.

This is already the case for Year 10 Work Experience, where registration forms are posted in .DOC format and expected to be emailed to the careers adviser, filled in with student work placement details.

It has been proposed that even monetary payments could one day (perhaps in the 50-years range) take place over a highly secure intranet. This would be an example of e-commerce, and the implementation of such an e-commerce system must not happen without an addressing of the social and ethical issues that are involved, particularly with privacy, security, and identity theft. These issues could be addressed with technologies such as encryption, so that people with access to the many switches, routers, and other (e.g. ISP-level) hardware used for relaying transaction data (e.g. passwords) are unable to intercept and unethically use such data for their own gain.

Collaboration in projects

"The year nines now do all their SRP [Science Research Project] journal stuff on a wiki on Google Sites. You should see them, sending cute little messages to each other about each others' projects. It's so weird!"

- Mr. Ballantyne, Science Teacher

Students are already using the Intranet in a number of projects and assignments where collaboration and communication is necessary. Indeed, the project for which I am writing these words, the apocalipticDESIGN intranet HSC IPT major project, requires such levels of collaboration and communication.

The intranet will very probably continue to facilitate the use of Google Sites as a collaboration tool in this way, particularly due to the apparent restrictions placed on other collaboration tools such as Google Docs.

Use of online tools will become much more suitable as the number of computer-based projects increase; in particular, many teachers seem to be keen about designing projects that could be entered into the Digital Learning Resource (DLR) "Connected Learning" Awards.

Copyright and attribution is a social and ethical issue that may affect individual students, and indeed, even teachers, who are using the intranet for project production. As students are increasingly expected to submit their work to the intranet, it will be easier for students to plagarise other students, instead of external sources. The need to prevent and control this potential problem could be met with the introduction of areas of the intranet that are inaccessible to anyone apart from people who are directly involved with the projects and assignments in question, as is currently being done with the junior science Student Research Projects.

Need for personalisation + teachers = more subdomains

Teachers been have quick to discover the benefits of using Google Sites as a teaching aid, but have some have chosen not to rely on the James Ruse intranet for this purpose. For example, Mr. Chandra Handa, an English teacher at James Ruse AHS, has started his own Google-Sites-based website, giftedlearning.com.au. This website is, in turn, based on Woo Random Files, by Maths and IPT teacher Mr. Woo.

Due to the extendability of Google Sites, both these websites could easily be merged with the James Ruse intranet's Faculties section instead of standing on their own; however, this has not been the case, because both these sites were created due to their creators' desires for personalisation. Furthermore, both Gifted Learning and Woo Random Files offer personalisation for students as well. Student users of these websites have their own profile pages, which provide an opportunity for expression, in addition to practical uses (e.g. provision of contact details).

However, there is one notable difference between these two sites - while Gifted Learning is entirely separate from the James Ruse domain name jamesruse.nsw.edu.au (with the exception of the accounts used at Gifted Learning, which are provided by this domain name), Woo Random Files is a subdomain located at http://woo.jamesruse.nsw.edu.au/. The significance of this is that Mr. Woo can take advantage of the large bandwidth allocation that James Ruse domain has the luxury of possessing in terms of Google Sites usage.

It is therefore highly probable that Mr. Chandra Handa will move his website, Gifted Learning, to the jamesruse.nsw.edu.au domain, in order to take advantage of the bandwidth capacities (as Mr. Woo has done). It is also highly probably that other teachers will follow suit, creating their own sites (under the James Ruse banner) for the stated purpose of personalisation, in the 5, to 10, to 50 years to come.

H6.1: Based on your answer to the H4.1 question, propose a solution for the 2010 apocalipticDesign team to develop and implement next year.

Proposal: The 2010 apocalipticDESIGN team should develop a new student-centered section of the Intranet, students.jamesruse.nsw.edu.au, that facilitates collaboration in student projects, as well as relevant discussion e.g. on how to improve school life.

They must implement methods by which content on this section of the intranet can be moderated, e.g. site administrators, or content filtering. They should compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of each of the different moderation methods, and justify the final selection of moderation method(s) used. Additionally, they must discuss the social and ethical issues involved with such moderation, particularly in regards to censorship.

The 2010 aD team should also implement an announcements section that allows staff members to address the students of James Ruse in order to digitally provide students with resources such as permission notes.
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Eddie Woo,
Jun 30, 2009, 3:19 AM
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