Internet User Services

Jill Foster

Newcastle is currently host to a number of national Internet User Services which were conceived and developed at Newcastle. The most important of these are:


The Higher Education Funding bodies, through JISC - their Joint Information Systems Committee, fund Mailbase at £250k pa and Netskills at £1M over 3 years (to July 1998).

How did it all get started?

In February 1980, Jill Foster joined the Computing lab, fresh from the Lab's MSc conversion course in Computing Science. As part of the Network group, she was involved in writing assembler routines for the machines that ran the campus network, Nunet. Being involved in writing the user interface to the network she was also the one involved in writing documentation, providing user support and the occasional seminar and demos on the uses and benefits of the network. In the era of "real programmers don't eat quiche", the rest of the network development group (Denis Russell, Lyn Greenwood and John Aspden) were only too happy to let her do this.

User support at that time included helping users to transfer files from BITNET to Newcastle via JANET. This involved having an account on the BITNET/JANET gateway machine at Rutherford Labs in order to stage the file through it. It was at that time that Professor Alberti of the Medical School was contacted by a colleague in Pittsburgh, Dr. Ron LaPorte, and asked to find out how to use BITNET. Jill Foster helped out, and set up some mailing lists for them and other World Health Organisation diabetes researchers, on the Irish LISTSERV in Dublin.

Jill realised then that the network could be of much broader use to the academic community than simply serving the needs of computer scientists, physicists and networkers.

This was all at a time when the JNT (Joint Network Team) held the pursestrings as far as campus Networking was concerned. They saw their role as being the ones who gave down wisdom. However at that time there was already a great deal of networking expertise within the community, and there wasn't really a forum for people to share that experience. They (the JNT) didn't have a mechanism to encourage people to talk to each other electronically.

Jill campaigned at regional and national JANET user groups for a LISTSERV-like service in the UK and gave a paper on the topic at the JANET Networkshop in 1988. Newcastle were subsequently asked to write a proposal for a mailing list service. Hence Mailbase.

Mailbase early days

Newcastle received about £50k over 2 years from 1989 to provide a pilot mailing list service. Mailbase's first staff member, Ron Chennells, looked first at what was available elsewhere. LISTSERV, though the best around, was only available on IBM mainframes at that time. There were a few smaller mailing list software packages, but nothing that would really run on Unix workstations; so, having looked around, it was decided to write our own code for Mailbase, and that's how it all started.

The first group of lists that were run on the pilot service happened to be for librarians. At that time, and because of limited resources, no lists were set up for "techies" as we were keen to be proactive in pushing networking out to places where networking hadn't been before. We felt that computing science folk were quite capable of supporting themselves. Usenet news would have been no good for the people for whom we aimed to provide a service, because news tends to stay around for a couple of weeks on campus and then get ditched, and these people were (and many still are) occasional network users.

The original idea was to have a lot of mailbases around, hosting a small number of lists for a particular subject group, as opposed to hosting one large service. But it soon became apparent that people didn't want the hassle of running their own service; they didn't mind list administration, but they didn't actually want to run the machines or software themselves. By the end of the pilot, Mailbase was providing a much used and very reliable service. Newcastle was invited to bid to develop the prototype into a service. Cristy Emmett (who had taken over from Ron Chennells) was then joined by John Martin, Cliff Spencer and Dave Hartland, with Jill Foster providing management of the project.

The Current Mailbase Service

Mailbase currently enjoys 3 year rolling funding from the HE funding bodies. It provides a well managed mailing list service which is used by over 125,000 users worldwide with over 1800 discussion topics. As support of non-computer experts is a prime aim of Mailbase, user-support is provided by the Mailbase Helpline and a great deal of documentation is available on the Web. See for more information including the Annual Report.

Mailbase is now firmly entrenched in the fabric of UK university life. One academic, writing a review of Mailbase for the electronic journal Ariadne, said: "It's hard to imagine academic life without it."

The Computing Service runs a local copy of Mailbase, which supports around 800 local mailing lists.

Mailbase leads to Netskills

Mailbase has never been just the mailing list side; it has always aimed to support groups in using the network to communicate and share information. Mailbase ran both subject-based and general training sessions for subject groups and individuals wanting to find out more about using the network. These "Mailbase: Exploring the Internetî workshops were extremely popular and Mailbase was asked to run courses for new sites connecting to JANET.

Also at this time Jill Foster, together with Mailbaseís User Support and Training Officer - Dave Hartland - was involved in running workshops for developing countries for NATO and the Internet Society. The first was in Prague, Czechoslovakia; following years' workshops have been in Hawaii, Montreal and Kuala Lumpur.

Mailbase's reputation for providing good quality Internet training led first to a two year ITTI project to develop network training materials for others to use. Margaret Isaacs was the project officer for this project. Following this Jill Foster submitted a proposal for three years of funding for a comprehensive Internet training programme: Netskills.

Netskills: Mission impossible?

The Netskills project started on October 1st 1995 and was tasked with bringing network training and awareness to 10,000 higher education staff over 3 years to help them make effective use of the Internet for learning and teaching, research and administration. Could the new Netskills team rise to this challenge or were they on an impossible mission?

Two-thirds through the project's lifetime the Netskills team has developed a range of course materials and delivered 200 courses and seminars to over 6,000 people giving a total to date of 18,000 person hours of training. (These include around 600 staff and research students from Newcastle and a range of courses for Newcastle staff development.) A further 16,000 staff and students have undertaken self-paced training using the interactive web-based tutorial, TONIC. Netskills courses are run all over the country. Given this "mass training" extensive but practical quality assurance procedures have been defined in order to maintain high quality in all aspects of the Netskills programme.

Quantity and Quality

In spite of the need for mass training, Netskills workshops try to provide individuals with a quality learning experience during which they are asked to reflect on what they are learning and how they will put that into practice. Strong emphasis is given to hands-on experience, discussion sessions, help for individuals and on evaluation and feedback. The involvement of educationalists will helps improve further the learning experience offered, as does the new purpose built training suite developed at the University of Newcastle for use by Netskills and others.

Feedback from course participants is captured online and analysed automatically. Immediate feedback has been extremely positive, but Netskills want to ensure that the training it provides is resulting in much more than a better skilled community by looking at the impact of their training on working practices. A full range of evaluation activities covering performance, impact and synthesis is in progress. This includes the work being carried out as part of another eLib project, IMPEL2, which is carrying out an in depth evaluation of both Netskills and Edulib.

Helping others to train

Netskills is very keen to help other trainers take part in the "Netskills challenge" in order to increase the impact of the project. Staff with an Internet teaching or training role can make use of the Netskills Training Kits to run their own Internet training courses. There are currently five kits, which are proving to be very popular, ranging from introductory, through searching to authoring and publishing.

In addition to the development of training materials, Netskills current activities to support other network trainers include:

Full details of the take-up of Netskills products is given in the Netskills 1996-1997 Annual Report from the Netskills web site:

TONIC - learning about the Internet using the Internet

The Netskills interactive Web-based tutorial, TONIC, is a very cost effective way of delivering introductory Internet training, in particular to students on taught courses. There have been over 15,000 registrations to use TONIC. HE trainers find this a valuable resource to complement their face-to-face training. Most universities in the UK regularly use TONIC. Work has now begun on the next generation of TONIC tutorials, TONIC NG, in collaboration with Newcastle-based staff of the European 4th Framework DESIRE project. The aim is to produce a modular, extensible, easily maintained interactive tutorial system which could support different contents and which will be mountable at other sites.

Still room for Arjuna?

Jill denies reports that she is gradually taking over the entire 3rd floor of the Bridge; she points to the fact that there is still room in the research corridor for projects like Arjuna (an object-oriented programming system, implemented entirely in C++, that provides a set of tools for the construction of fault-tolerant distributed applications, led by Santosh Shrivastava). In fact Netskills and Mailbase staff have to keep a close eye on Web developments, and therefore benefit from discussions on WebObjects and similar topics.

The Training Suite

The Netskills drive to ensure the delivery of only high-quality training is assisted by its access to the brand new purpose-built UCS Training Suite. Netskills staff were involved in the design of this suite and were able to draw on their experiences of training elsewhere in often less than adequate facilities.

The Training Suite is an attractive, spacious and modern facility for staff training, conferences and workshops, with forty high specification multimedia PCs sponsored by Viglen Ltd. It offers fast Internet access over ethernet, a separate seminar room which seats 40 with an LCD projector for PC, Mac and video input. The air-conditioned Suite is completely self-contained with toilets, a groupwork and coffee room and a secure reception area, with wheelchair access to all facilities.

Future Challenges

So what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for Netskills and Mailbase? The changing network environment and the continuing need to help the HE community exploit it to the full is in itself an ongoing and exciting challenge. JISC's limited funding and the need to move to income generation means that both Netskills and Mailbase need to develop business plans to reduce the dependency on central funding. Both Mailbase and Netskills are already gaining experience of the potential markets. This next phase promises new challenges and opportunities for the Mailbase and Netskills teams to rise to.


Mailase Web Site

Netskills Web Site

TONIC: The Online Netskills Interactive Course NIC/

IMPEL2 Web Site uk/~liy8/impel2/impel2.htm

NETEG (Netskills Network Education and Training Electronic Gateway) TEG/

DESIRE: Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education



Contents Page - 40 years of Computing at Newcastle
Internet User Services, 21 October 1997