Case Study: SoftArc’s FirstClass messaging system

Now that the Open University has adopted the Internet via email servers worldwide, it can stay in touch with its global student...

Now that the Open University has adopted the Internet via email servers worldwide, it can stay in touch with its global student audience

Key benefits

Key Benefits of FirstClass include ease of use, good remote connectivity, powerful administration tools and low marginal cost per user. Dr Gary Alexander, director, Electronic Media in Education Research Group comments: "After researching computer communication for many years, we discovered FirstClass shortly after it was released. We considered it a major design breakthrough and have been using it ever since. It has an ease of use, friendliness and flexibility that is unrivaled. We now use it for over 35,000 students and are developing the rich possibilities of its web interface for future courses."

The Open University

The Open University offers distance learning, including undergraduate and postgraduate courses, to around 200,000 part-time students. Academic Computing Services (ACS) is responsible for the computing needs of academic and research staff and for the support of students who use computing as part of their courses. The Network Access Services Team supports students and staff in their use of network applications, particularly computer conferencing and Internet access. ACS has been running a FirstClass system for students and staff since 1994.

SoftArc's FirstClass was chosen as a messaging system because of its flexible and customisable conferencing environment. Ben Plumpton, FirstClass system administrator and part of the Network Access Services Team, says: "FirstClass is easy to use, with good remote connectivity and powerful administration tools. We chose FirstClass because of its good scalability, low marginal cost per user, and because the cross-platform client runs on fairly basic computers."

Scale of use

The number of FirstClass users at the Open University site has increased significantly since 1994:

( 1994: 1,200

( 1995: 2,500

( 1996: 15,000

( 1997: 24,000

( 1998: 35,000-40,000 forecast

FirstClass is currently used for over 80 courses, with more than 5,000 conferences in operation using around 1,000 conference moderators. On average, over 15,000 connections are made a day by more than 4,000 different users. In addition, 20,000 mail messages are sent and more than 150,000 conference messages are read daily.

The benefits of using FirstClass

"Asynchronous computer conferencing tool such as FirstClass is particularly useful for the Open University because our students are spread all over the country and the world! Students need to fit their studies around their other commitments," says Plumpton. "FirstClass helps them academically by enabling them to discuss their course material, have queries answered and deepen their understanding through meeting other perspectives, and it can provide vital mutual support and a feeling of community through social conferences."

One student explained that FirstClass: "...takes the distance out of distance learning."

FirstClass Intranet Server (FCIS)

ACS is about to embark on a 300-user pilot study using SoftArc's new product ( FirstClass Intranet Server ( and are planning to upgrade fully early next year. Plumpton says: "Some academic areas in The Open University put a high priority on open systems and so favor Web-based conferencing. Others are keen on the additional functionality of the FirstClass Client. FCIS will provide both. FirstClass conferencing via the Web will also help students and tutors abroad."

Special projects

ACS has an extensive common room area run by the Open University Students' Association, containing hundreds of busy and lively conferences on a vast range of subjects. The Technology Foundation Course (T102) ran a Virtual Summer School this year for students who were unable, for reasons of disability or distance, to attend a physical summer school. They carried out many of the same activities as at the "real" summer school, working in teams through conferences to discuss strategy and write reports.

The Business School's MBA foundation course runs an electronic business game and student teams plan their game submissions through FirstClass conferences.

Paul Phillips

This was last published in June 1999

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