September/October 2000 // Case Studies
Collaboration In and Out of the Classroom: Clemson University's Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE)
by Kathy Biggs
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Kathy Biggs "Collaboration In and Out of the Classroom: Clemson University's Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE)" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Every class can benefit from enhanced collaboration among students and between students and instructors. Because technology can facilitate collaboration, Clemson University offers its 16,000 students and 1,200 faculty members a wide range of information technology tools and services; collectively, they are known as the Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE).

The CLE is designed to make basic technological tools easy to use and at the same time allow for the most sophisticated use of technology in the classroom. The CLE is available with an investment of little or no administration on the part of the faculty or the University’s Division of Computing and Information Technology. Because the CLE automatically pulls data from the existing student database and course management system, online classes are populated with membership and instructor assignments without any manual input.

Access to Learning Through the CLE

Prior to the start of each semester, 500 megabytes of network server space are automatically created for each of the approximately 6,000 class sections that Clemson offers per term. An online classroom is then available to any professor who wishes to make use of it. Within that space, each student in any given class has access to a consistent suite of course tools and file folders. Such tools include a file manager for uploading and downloading files to and from the class workspace, a discussion board, and a class calendar. Folders allow students and faculty to drop off and retrieve assigned work; they contain class assignments, the course syllabus, class notes provided by the professor, and reserved library materials. When a professor at Clemson places an order through the library for reserves, library personnel digitize the materials into PDF format (Adobe Acrobat) and copy the file into the reserves folder of the online classroom.

Because of the CLE's global availability through the Internet, students and faculty with valid userIDs and passwords can access their classes from any location via a distinctive authentication product called NDS Authentication Services, marketed by Novell, Inc. When students or faculty go to the online class workspace URL ( they are prompted to log on to the Clemson network. The NDS Authentication Services product checks their login against Novell Directory Services to provide that user with a current list of resources available to them. Resources could include such things as network server space, network printers, computer applications, and CLE class workspace. Access to a particular class workspace, therefore, is limited to the students enrolled in that class and the instructor(s) assigned to teach it. Because of the secure nature of the class workspace, some public options do exist. Instructors have the option, for example, to set up a public discussion board which does not require the secure login. When a student logs on to the network, the screen displays a list of all of his or her classes for the current term; when a faculty member logs on, the screen displays his or her class assignments for the current term. Any user can go to the network space set aside for a particular class simply by selecting the course link. Registration drives the creation of CLE class workspaces and membership lists: as students add and drop courses and as teaching assignments are updated, course links (along with workspace access) are automatically added to or deleted from the screen.

Collaborative Projects through the CLE

Departments within each of the University’s five colleges use the CLE in various ways to enhance the delivery of course materials and to encourage collaboration among students. The CLE automatically generates and maintains an e-mail list for each class. It also allows professors to set up multiple chat rooms and divide classes into workgroups that have their own Web space and chat rooms. The CLE even allows faculty to group whole classes together and create workgroups across the curriculum. Several programs at Clemson feature collaborative projects through the CLE. They include the following:

  • CommuniCon. English professor Bernadette Longo used to require student teams in her courses to make formal, face-to-face presentations. The presentation sessions, which usually took place at night, sometimes lasted as long as six hours each. In spring 1998, she worked with her students to devise a less time-consuming format. Through the CLE, they set up CommuniCon: an online workspace for student projects. The project quickly encouraged interdepartmental collaboration. Now students from different fields across the University (e.g., English, Spanish, horticulture, landscape design, and engineering) collaborate on service learning projects and display them at CommuniCon. Each team has its own discussion area and network space in which it stores documentation and presentation materials. Team members can use the shared space to prepare materials for their formal presentation at the Communicon event. The following URL gives examples of some past projects: fall99/learnin.htm.
  • Abnormal Psychology. For her abnormal psychology course, Patti Connor-Greene, 1999 South Carolina Professor of the Year, divides students into teams and assigns each team a clinical problem to solve. Students are asked to choose a clinical disorder from a list and to research that disorder as if it applied to them directly or to their family members. They are required to explore existing resources to gain a perspective on what questions arise that are not being answered and/or what treatment problems they are encountering. Students visit and evaluate local mental health facilities and compile their findings into a resource guide for the community. Before using CLE, Dr. Conner-Greene found that team coordination was a problem because of scheduling face-to-face meetings and that the final paper volume for projects was enormous. Now she uses CLE team space to help facilitate the projects. She breaks team assignments into parts; individual students complete and submit each part to the CLE team space. Once individual parts are complete, team members edit the sections using Microsoft Word, which allows them to add commentary directly to the documents. Connor-Greene says of the students, “They would not want to go back to doing it on paper. This has improved interaction with the students and given them more responsibility in the learning process.”
  • General Chemistry. Each semester more than 2,000 chemistry students use the CLE to work on group lab projects. Group members use CLE workspace to interact, prepare for lab, and develop reports and presentations. CLE tools allow the data that they collect to be stored, manipulated, and made available to all members of the group and the instructor. Chemistry professor Melanie Cooper's students review and learn course content through Web-based materials; in class, they use the CLE to hold question-and-answer sessions. Cooper indicates that the CLE allows her to spend less time lecturing and more time enabling students to discuss what they have learned on their own and from each other.
  • Management. CLE houses a computer-based simulation of the shoe industry that allows management students to role-play in their introductory courses. The CLE improves the simulation experience by providing students and professors with 24-hour global access to each other; their interactive academic relationships are no longer restricted by time and place. According to management professor Michael Crino, “The team setup works perfectly for the virtual shoe store, allowing faculty and students to focus on the management side, not the computer administrative side.” (The CLE automatically enters the class roll as well as automating team set up. Professors can choose team members manually from the class roll or can click a button to have teams randomly assigned. Team folders and discussion areas are automatically created as well as other features private to the team.) Each team is assigned to manage a company that produces and sells hiking boots. All companies start with identical tangible resources such as employees, cash, equipment, raw materials, and a factory. Students must work effectively in their management teams to make business decisions while being challenged with such uncertainties as the actions of competitors and various economic impacts. Each team has the same objective—maximize the value of its stock. At the end of the experience, team decisions are put into a program that gives financial and operational information based on those decisions. The results are transferred into CLE team folders.

Training and Support for the CLE

The CLE is designed to support all students and faculty, regardless of their familiarity with computers or the complexity of their applications. For undergraduates, the University has incorporated a computer literacy program in introductory English and engineering courses. Professors are encouraged to take advantage of a variety of CLE workshops, seminars, and consulting sessions. Any faculty member can request in-class training for a specific course. Faculty members appreciate the on-going CLE training opportunities provided by the Division of Computing and Information Technology as well as the user-friendliness of CLE course administration software.

The Future

Network server statistics show that 60-75% of classes are taking advantage of the CLE with the number growing each semester. The student population seems to drive the use of the CLE. For instance, students often request that their professors use the online environment to share files. Because everyone has access to the online environment and because use can range from simple to advanced, faculty feel free to explore different levels and methods of use and how it can enhance course delivery. For support and promotion, faculty-led seminars are arranged to give faculty the opportunity to share new ideas, successes, and failures. Other groups on campus outside the traditional course section—such as doctoral committees, grant teams, and special projects teams—are also beginning to request use of the online environment. The CLE is well on its way to becoming the delivery mechanism for all computing services available to students and faculty at Clemson. New features under development include online testing, an online grade book, and an online planner for students that will display information such as due dates and assignments for each course. To learn more about the innovative work and accomplishments of Clemson faculty who use the CLE, choose the Online Newsletter link from the CLE home page.

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