A Distance Education Collaboration: The Learning Café Experience



As distance education collaborations between high schools

and colleges increase, there is a concern that little has been

done to assess the quality and effectiveness of the resulting

virtual courses (Carr & Young, 1999). Yet it is equally important

to address or consider the many challenges and issues of the

collaboration itself. How these issues are addressed will seriously

impact the success of any college distance education project

in collaboration with other institutions of learning, including

K-12 schools, community centers, and private industry. This article

is about collaboration issues between high schools and colleges.

It focuses on what the developers learned and offers lessons

for what must be considered and planned for prior to the initiation

of a collaboration project.

The Brooklyn College Learning Café project (http://www.sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~lori/TLC/),

a collaboration between an urban college and four local high

school partners, was developed through a $650,000 grant from

the U.S. Department of Commerce, Telecommunications and Information

Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP). More than 600 juniors

and seniors participated in the Learning Café project.

This report first describes Brooklyn College’s impetus for

designing the Learning Café project. The next section

provides a description of the curriculum and the software developed.

Collaboration issues are discussed concentrating on all facets

of the Learning Café. Finally, the report offers recommendations

for achieving greater success in partnerships between high schools

and colleges as well as other collaborations.

Motivation for Collaboration

The Learning Café project was a direct result of the

College President’s recent initiative, "The Year 2000 and

Beyond: Shaping the Future," to make Brooklyn College a

model urban liberal arts college of the twenty-first century

(Brooklyn College, Office of the President, 1993). Part of the

initiative was to build bridges to the community, to contribute

to its social and economic well being, and to assume a national

leadership role in revitalizing instruction.

The Learning Café project formed a partnership with

four Brooklyn high schools (Midwood, Edward R. Murrow, Samuel

J. Tilden and the Brooklyn College Academy), Brooklyn College

of The City University of New York (CUNY), and the College Board.

The project had as one of its goals to introduce Internet access

to these high schools. According to the National Center for Education

Statistics 78% of U.S. public schools had Internet access in

1997. The remaining 22%, including the four designated Brooklyn

high schools were schools in danger of remaining excluded from

access to information because they were not connected to the

Internet (U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

The four high schools participating in the Learning Café

project are within five miles of Brooklyn College, but many of

the students participating in the project were socially and economically

distanced from what higher education had to offer. Brooklyn College’s

aim was to break down the economic and geographic barriers to

computer access and Internet skills as well as barriers to considering

college as an option. The high schools represent a mix of sizes,

models, and enrollments. The Brooklyn College Academy is an alternative

high school targeting at-risk students from throughout the borough

who have had difficulty reaching their potential in traditional

settings. A percentage of Midwood students are selectively admitted

with the remainder attending based on residency. Edward R. Murrow

is an Educational Option School, required to maintain both an

ethnic and educational representation of the borough. Samuel

J .Tilden high school serves neighborhood students in an economically

disadvantaged area. The vision of Brooklyn College’s TIIAP

grant proposal was to bring together the expertise of professionals

in the College, high schools, government, and corporations to

develop an effective approach for integrating technology with

secondary education. The College was awarded the TIIAP grant

in October 1997. The project planning process began in November

1997 and the Learning Cafés were put in place in the schools

by September of the following year.

Collaboration between Secondary Schools and Higher Education:

The History

Collaborations between high schools and institutions of higher

learning have been growing for the past two decades, in particular

since the publication A Nation At Risk (National Commission

on Excellence in Education, 1983). Partnerships between schools

and colleges have involved onsite as well as distance education

(Clark, 1988; Wilbur, Lambert, & Young, 1988). Researchers

have also noted that overburdened urban high schools can benefit

from the enrichment that distance education may offer (Carr &

Young, 1999; Williams, Eiserman & Quinn, 1988). Moreover,

distance education provides a unique opportunity for innovative

strategies by colleges and universities to recruit in areas far

beyond their geographic environs.

Learning Café Project: Establishing the Groundwork

The project was designed to expose high school students to

new opportunities by making Internet access and college education

more readily available. To achieve this, the project would:

  • Provide Internet access in a computer lab at each school;

  • Develop a junior year curriculum with teachers overseeing

    classroom activity;

  • Offer a senior curriculum which would include live instruction

    and virtual college courses for credit; and

  • Develop software for delivering courses, protecting systems,

    and gathering information about student performance.

A team from Brooklyn College and the high schools facilitated

the Learning Café project. Courseware is typically produced

by teams of individuals with a range of areas of expertise (Yang,

Moore, & Burton, 1995). The project team for the Learning

Café consisted of a Project Director, a Project Coordinator,

two Software Technical Advisors, two Curriculum Developers, two

Multimedia Designers, and four High School Coordinators. These

team members brought expertise in high school and college education,

educational technology, programming, art and design, and a variety

of college subjects to the project.

The Café project required purchasing equipment and

furniture for each high school. Brooklyn College built new computer

labs at two of the high schools and augmented equipment in existing

computer labs in the other schools. The College installed T1

lines and servers and networked the computer laboratories at

each high school. Each school also received adaptive equipment

for persons with disabilities.

Learning Café Curriculum

The sequence of virtual study offered in the Learning Café

began with a course for high school juniors in information literacy:

this entailed learning the process of recognizing a need for,

and then gathering and using information (http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/library/virtualcollege/info-literacy/Toc.html).

After taking the information literacy course in the fall, the

junior year students progressed to an online critical thinking

and writing course in the spring semester.

Figure 1: Lesson from the

Information Literacy Curriculum

High school seniors began the fall semester learning the College

Board’s ExPan software, for choosing, applying to, and paying

for college. Seniors also learned to build their own Web pages

as part of their college application process. Teachers were trained

to use Netscape Composer as well as the ExPan software and worked

directly with students using these applications. High school

seniors were then eligible to take for credit one of three online

Brooklyn College courses in English, Biology, or History. These

courses were developed and taught by Brooklyn College professors

who were not part of the project team.

Pedagogy and Technical Issues: The Custom Browser

While developing the curriculum for juniors, the project team

realized a potential problem: students who accessed the lessons

through Windows 95, the standard personal computer operating

system, may be computer novices who would find the many Windows

options confusing and/or distracting. More sophisticated users,

on the other hand, might be tempted to customize the environment

in such a way that the computer could not be used to run the

Learning Café. Moreover, to re-configure the computers

would be time-consuming for the high school teachers and administrators.

To circumvent this potential obstacle, the project team approved

a software interface for the junior level curriculum that simplified

computer use and restricted the types of activities allowed.

This software interface did not apply to the senior course curriculum,

since their access to the college credit courses was entirely

through the Web.

The Learning Café browser was developed by a multimedia

designer with a client application distributed on CD-ROM that

served as the interface for the junior curriculum. It launched

on startup and could be terminated only by an instructor who

knew the password. It provided access only to the intended content

and to other applications needed for the online courses.

Figure 2: Outside the Learning


Upon startup, the browser retrieved the server’s Internet

address, the locations of the shared files, and other customized

information from an initialization file. It checked the Internet

connection, and in the event the lessons and/or database were

inaccessible via the Internet, then the lessons were retrieved

from a local source. Although student performance records could

not be maintained on the local source, it at least permitted

students to continue to work until the server, network, or connection

was repaired.

The browser’s timer tracked how long the computer was

idle. If not used for a given time period (specified in the initialization

file), the browser closed any windows it had generated and returned

to the opening screen, waiting for the next student to sign on.

This ensured that all students entering the Learning Café

could log in without confronting materials opened by a pervious


Although many of the lesson pages listed links to related

Web pages, the project team wanted students, early on in their

lessons, to focus on Learning Café content and avoid the

distractions of surfing. Therefore, in the early sessions (how

many is specified in the initialization file) students were limited

to browsing only those domains referenced by the lesson pages.

Later on, after gaining a clearer understanding of the Internet

through the information literacy exercises the student was free

to roam the Internet without restrictions.

The Database

The Learning Café software technical advisor designed

a relational database, tied to the junior curriculum and the

custom browser, to support and supervise students taking online

courses with the Learning Café. Databases are being used

more and more in Web-based instruction to gather information

about student access, progress, and understanding (Arnow &

Barshay, 1999; Wade & Power, 1998). The Filemaker Pro database

system, running locally in each of the high school Learning Cafés,

offered customized Web pages that reminded students of what lesson

they were on and provided links to up-to-date lesson pages. The

database was also used to generate quizzes at the end of each

lesson, automatically grade the multiple-choice portions of those

quizzes, and enable a student to go on to the next lesson.

Figure 3: Welcome Page

in the Lessons

At the same time, this database system gathered information

about who was doing what in the Learning Café. Instructors

and administrators could then use this information to gauge student

progress and assign grades.

Instructors were given a special password for the Learning

Café that allowed them to access and update information

gathered by the database system. Instructors could see every

quiz that their students had taken and assign grades to the short

answer portions. They could then use the quiz grades, exercise

responses, and information about student access to assign grades

to the individual students. Additional administration Web pages

enabled staff to define new classes, add students to those classes,

and track Learning Café usage.

Collaboration Issues

The Learning Café functioned as a testing ground for

collaboration between different institutions of learning. The

success of this project depended on the full cooperation of all

members of an interdisciplinary team from a variety of work environments,

each with its own culture. Cooperation was required for all phases

of the project including technical development, lab installation,

and the delivery of the Learning Café curriculum by the

high school partners.

Many of the strategies employed contributed to the program’s

success. Yet some of the strategies would have benefitted from

changes in implementation and led to greater success in college/high

school collaborations. The following assessment and evaluation

explores what went right — and what went wrong — with the Learning

Café project. Other inter-institutional partnerships could

greatly benefit from the issues identified and the recommended


Technical Development

Technical development — creating the browser, database, and

lesson pages — proved to be the most successful collaboration.

The curriculum developers sketched their ideas of what the lesson

pages should look like and then discussed these ideas with the

multimedia developers.

The multimedia developer who designed the Learning Café

browser also worked closely with the technical advisor building

the database. Although these collaborators were from a variety

of disciplines, all were affiliated with institutions of higher

education and, therefore, had similar expectations for the project.

Figure 4: Multimedia Enhanced


Key to the success of this endeavor was the development process.

Developing the lessons in the hypertext mark-up language (HTML)

format easily allowed for fluid content, extensive dissemination,

and the migration of the lessons from the browser to a totally

Web-based environment. The collaborators worked on a common document

or program, and communicated frequently.

Nevertheless, the project’s limited time frame and budget

constraints prevented the project team from creating lessons

with true state-of-the-art multimedia effects. Despite innovations

in multimedia production software that cut down on necessary

production time, the number of hours needed to produce multimedia

software will always exceed the number of hours of software produced.

Macromedia, creator of Shockwave and the applications that generate

online multimedia, suggests that 100 hours of development time

should be allowed to create every one hour of multimedia-enhanced

courseware. In addition to requiring extensive production time,

multimedia professionals command high salaries and production

houses are an equally costly alternative. Although some developers

may give educational institutions a break in price, most will

not (Davies and Brailsford, 1994). With limited time and resources,

the Learning Café project media designer could implement

only a small portion of what was desired.

In addition, inadequate monitors and RAM on some of the computers

in the Learning Café labs diminished the quality of the

presentation. Because the funding provided to the project was

insufficient to equip all lab computers with headphones, audio

enhancements could not be applied to either the Learning Café

browser or the lessons.

Lab Installation

Coordinating the installation effort proved to be the another

challenging part of this task triggered in large part by a difference

in calendars between college and high school terms. Due to delays

in equipment orders and the phone company’s installation

of the T1 lines, the Café installation occurred during

the summer rather than the spring. Local wiring issues, equipment

delivery delays and difficulty in checking the network complicated

an already complex installation that involved IBM, The City University

of New York Instructional Technology and Information Services

Office, Bell Atlantic, and the Brooklyn College systems staff.

College personnel were working on the project during the summer

months but the high school coordinators were either not available

or could meet only briefly during this time. Most of the communication

was via e-mail but did not have the immediacy that a physical

presence or even cell phones could have provided. Furthermore,

it was often difficult to access the high schools.

Delivering the Learning Café Curriculum: The High School Partners

Development of technology and the lab installation were not

the only phases of the project that were challenging to the collaboration.

The high school coordinators chosen by the high school principals

to work on the Learning Café project were well-qualified

for the job. Three were assistant principals and one an experienced

teacher. Initially, the team met weekly to develop curriculum

content and software; however it soon became apparent that the

high school coordinators could not keep up with a weekly schedule.

In addition, the coordinators were asked to provide administrative

assistance related to the installation of the cafés, solicit

teacher participation, support training and see to the implementation

of the curriculum. The high school administrators were enthusiastic

about receiving computers, furniture and Internet access. Nonetheless,

they found it very difficult to meet the demands of their full-time

jobs, and, in addition, assist with the coordination of the installation

of the cafés and coordinate the project at their individual


The Learning Café project employed an outside evaluator

to review the project upon completion. After interviewing the

high school coordinators, the project evaluator concluded that

integrating the Learning Café program in to the high schools

proved more demanding than the coordinators had expected. One

coordinator commented that he "already had a full-time position

with a heavy workload at the school, and managing the Learning

Café site proved to be too great a challenge" (Martinez-Pons,


The College initiated the Learning Café project with

the intention of forming a collaboration with the high schools,

but the high school coordinators did not view the project as

a partnership and continued to view it as Brooklyn College’s

project. Therefore, the high school coordinators sometimes had

difficulty accepting responsibility at critical periods during

the project. Brooklyn College did not have authority to supervise

high school principals or coordinators to ensure full participation

of the high schools. Cooperation between the institutions was

entirely voluntary. This made it difficult to ensure that problems

or issues were solved in a timely manner. This problem is germane

to many college/high school collaborations (Pratt, 1991).

In addition to the cooperation of the high school coordinators,

delivery of the Learning Café curriculum also required

the cooperation of the high school teachers. Close involvement

of the high school faculty is critical in any high school/university

collaboration (Rakow & Robinson, 1997). The college set up

MCI Internet connections in each high school and at the homes

of each teacher involved in the project so that they could preview

the information literacy, critical thinking, and writing lessons

as they were created and placed on a conference Web site for

review. Although the curriculum developers had ultimate responsibility

for the content of their courses, it was essential that the high

school partners agree with what was planned to present to their

classes. Nonetheless, very few of the high school teachers scheduled

to teach the course monitored the Web site or offered suggestions

about the curriculum.

In addition, miscommunication or misunderstanding regarding

funding for teacher training led to added confusions: high school

coordinators assumed that the college would pay the teachers

for additional time spent in curriculum development and training,

while the college assumed that this would be part of the high

schools grant matching responsibilities. Brooklyn College hosted

two, four- hour training sessions in the fall 1997 semester when

the curriculum and software were complete and the proposed starting

date was at hand. The intensive training period was an opportunity

for hands-on practice and interaction with the developers, but

was not long enough to allow for major revisions the teachers

may have recommended on their first encounter with the lessons

at the training sessions. Consequently, if the teachers were

confused by or disagreed with lesson content or features at the

time the curriculum was delivered, they chose to by-pass portions

of what was offered and students were short-changed. As a result,

some students did not complete exercises requiring participation

in the threaded discussion software incorporated into the exercises

most likely because their teachers were not trained sufficiently

in the tool to pass the skill on to the students.

Furthermore, the teachers, who received initial training in

the automated administrative functions available within the browser

and through the database program, did not use these features

or ask for the follow-up instruction that may have been needed.

Tests were not graded with the automated system; instead, a number

of teachers requested that the multiple choice quizzes following

each information literacy lesson be printed out for the students

and marked by hand.

In addition, because of insufficient training in the custom-built

and commercial software employed in the project, the computer

lab technicians at the high schools found it difficult to troubleshoot

technical problems. Furthermore, the high school teachers and

technicians were not adequately trained to keep the Web server

up and running. The server — the computer holding the database

and the online content — was located in the classroom in each

of the high schools, leaving this vital part of the Learning

Café open to tampering and abuse. When the server shut

down, or the system suffered interference the high schools relied

on Brooklyn College staff to get it up and running again. Accidently

or intentionally, high school students and staff could — and

did — move files around, modify database records, and delete

important files.

Software as well as hardware presented coordination issues.

Brooklyn College did not effectively communicate to the high

schools the purpose of the custom built browser to control student

access to the computers in the Learning Café laboratories.

Consequently, because the high schools wanted to use the Learning

Café computer labs for other purposes, the Learning Café

browser did not run as intended. Students launched the browser

from the Windows operating system and systems were left open

to tampering. The browser became just another application that

the students had to learn, instead of the primary application

that introduced students to the other applications.

Seniors enrolled in the Brooklyn College credit courses did

not require special technical applications because the courses

were entirely Web based. The seniors did however did periodically

have questions and needed hands-on assistance with the software.

A high school teacher was not assigned to this role. This oversight

would take its toll on both the virtual students and professors.

College faculty expressed frustration that there was no high

school teacher to contact to determine how students were progressing

or to ascertain why they had not heard from a student in three

weeks. The professors did not know if the student was ill, or

had dropped out, or needed some additional help. One of the Brooklyn

College professors stated ,"a structure of client-side support

needs to be built, involving high school teachers, administrators,

and parents" (Berardi, 2000). Clearly, many high school

students continue to need some guidance and supervision in the

distance learning classroom. (Fyock, 1995).

The limited involvement the high school partners offered to

the Learning Café project underscores a significant cultural

difference between high school and college faculty. Secondary

school teachers are paid to teach a set of classes and prepare

curriculum–both require a great deal of time. For college

faculty, instruction comprises a small part of their performance

evaluations where research and outside projects are equally important.

Outside projects are integral to a college professor’s progress

on a promotion and tenure track. High school teachers are evaluated

solely on their classroom performance. Work on outside projects

uses valuable time they needed for their classes. No release

time was afforded teachers or coordinators for the Learning Café

project. In addition, there was no credit or reward for time

spent on the project.

Lessons Learned

Although the Learning Café Project team had initially

perceived that the technical issues would be the most challenging

aspect of the project, the greatest challenges proved to be in

the implementation of a collaborative partnership. With relatively

minor changes in budgeting, planning, and understanding, the

dynamics of the collaboration might have changed significantly

for the better.

In a partnership with a high school, a college would do well

to give the high school significant ownership of the project.

The needs of teachers as well as administrators must be considered

in planning the partnership. Teachers are more likely to be enthusiastic

if they contribute to the design of the curriculum and are adequately

trained for online course delivery.

While the following recommendation was intended for faculty

in higher education, the Learning Café experience demonstrates

the same is true for teachers in K-12 schools.

"The integration of distance education into mainstream

higher education compels post-secondary institutions to reduce

existing barriers to faculty participation by compensating, rewarding,

and training faculty at levels commensurate with those of traditional

instructional activities and to provide instructional and administrative

support services designed to ensure student access to high-quality

instructional program." (Olcott and Wright, 1995)

Providing monetary or release-time compensation for program

development assistance is crucial to project success. Literature

on technology implementation in higher education strongly recommends

training and the allocation of funds for training. (Findley and

Findley, 1997, and Low, 1991). In addition, training should occur

in the school where the teacher is based. Because the project

is likely to be above and beyond the regular responsibilities

of those who act as high school coordinators, their funding needs

must be recognized in the project proposal stage. Furthermore,

principals who agree to participate must determine how the high

school administrator assigned will be able to assume the added


The absence of technology skills on the part of the teachers

contributed to their lack of involvement and difficulty with

the browser and database despite the fact that the College offered

training. The level of teacher training built into the Learning

Café project overestimated the degree of teacher technological

expertise. Furthermore, training for using technology in teaching

is so critical that it should be considered regardless of whether

a high school is involved in a distance learning project (Gallo

& Horton, 1994). A recent survey by the National Center for

Education Statistics found that only 20 percent of teachers feel

ready to integrate computers into their classrooms (1999). Institutions

of higher education need to incorporate more technology training

in teacher education courses. This training should continue in

high schools when teachers are in service in fully-equipped teacher

training labs (Guernsey, 2000). In addition, if a high school

partners with a college in a distance learning project, the sponsoring

institution needs to provide school-based technology experts

to train and mentor the high school teachers and assistant principals

in the use of technology with teaching. Moreover, a sponsoring

institution needs to provide adequate technical (hardware, software

and multimedia) support for any computers it installs. Lastly,

a sponsoring institution or the high school itself needs to provide

meaningful and appropriate teacher rewards for those teachers

who participate in the project. With this type of support, a

high school teacher should be assigned to act as a liaison/monitor

between the virtual high school students and the professor teaching

the college Web-based course.

A distance learning project of the scale of the Learning Café

project could benefit from the expertise of a full-time technical

coordinator to oversee technical decisions and assume responsibility

for coordinating the myriad technical issues that arise. Although

a full-time technical coordinator was assigned to the project,

because of his other responsibilities at the College, he did

not have adequate time to devote to Learning Café issues.

A technical coordinator could ease the establishment of new

or updated networked classrooms and troubleshoot all software

problems. Many problems and delays could be eliminated or minimized

if a technical coordinator is present at project meetings where

decisions are made on the purchase and installation of equipment

and software. Distance education courses require many more resources

than a typical on-campus course. As a result more technology

assistance, hardware, software, travel, and other coordination

activities require a great deal of institutional resources. (Gatliff

and Wendel, 1998).

Finally, any successful implementation of educational technology

requires involvement of the multimedia designer in all phases

of the project. This ensures that adequate technology is specified

and adequate time and funds are budgeted. It also helps to keep

expectations realistic, so that all parties might be satisfied

with the outcome.

Even with the presence of a single technical coordinator,

distributed computer servers can lead to a proliferation of problems

that could be avoided if this hardware and software are centralized.

If a network server is physically located at the sponsoring institution

where access is restricted to technically capable staff knowledgeable

about the distance learning partnership, and its workings and

its goals, the server would not be as vulnerable as it would

be if each server is located at a participating high school.

The sponsoring institution could take full responsibility for

administration of the servers used to deliver course content

and perform administrative functions such as student tracking

and grading.

Project Evaluation

The grant evaluation showed the effectiveness of the Learning

Café project. First, student attitudes toward computers

were substantially correlated with the usefulness of Web training,

gain in writing skills from critical thinking and writing course

and effectiveness of training in the use of Web tools. Second,

writing skills were substantially correlated with the usefulness

of Web training and effectiveness of training in the use of Web

tools. Lastly, the usefulness of Web training was substantially

correlated with the effectiveness of training in the use of Web

tools (Martinez-Pons, 1999).


The lessons learned in the Learning Café project clarify

what is necessary for successful distance education collaborations

and are confirmed by the broad-based recommendations identified

in the National Network for Collaboration (NNC), Collaboration

Framework (1995). The Collaboration Framework provides

guidelines to assist practitioners in a variety of universities

and community-based collaborative programs, not specifically

involving distance education. Based upon the Learning Café

project findings, the following recommendations, more specific

to a distance education collaboration, should be considered:

  • Involve all participants in planning, setting goals and identifying

    outcomes for the collaboration process.

  • Develop guidelines on how the collaboration will operate

    on a day-to-day basis.

  • Establish effective leadership.

  • Be aware of cultural differences between collaborators.

  • Be aware of the politics of each organization.

  • Establish and maintain open communication.

  • Develop an effective training program for instructors.

  • Insure full-time technical support during project implementation

    and throughout the collaboration.

  • Insure full-time administrative support for instructors,

    students and coordinators.

  • Provide compensation or release-time for individuals involved

    in a project above and beyond their regular responsibilities.

Collaborations can be difficult to establish and challenging

to maintain but the benefits and rewards can be great. Together,

the Learning Café partners developed creative strategies

for overcoming traditional barriers to access. Brooklyn College

has shared its comparative electronic and academic wealth with

students at these four inner-city high schools. Through the Learning

Café collaboration Brooklyn College positioned four public

high schools on the information super highway and gave them the

resources to continue solidly along this path.

Fully-equipped computer laboratories were established in each

of the four schools, high-speed Internet access was introduced,

and software and content allowing for distance learning became

a part of the high school curriculum. As technology continues

to make communication faster, easier, and more convenient, remote

access to education, libraries, and services will only increase.

Sharing of resources, whether they be teachers, technology, information

or students will become even more inviting and cost effective.

Technology has created the means for successful collaborations.

Partners must recognize the complexities of collaboration and

address the multiplicity of issues involved in entering into

a collaboration. The Learning Café recommendations can

help collaborators identify many of the important issues, avoid

potential problems, and achieve greater success.