Teaching Applications for
by Paul Bourke
|Acknowledgment: Matiu Carr, WWW manager for the School.|
One only needs to explore the information servers available on the WWW today to appreciate its value at a number of levels from a research tool to entertainment. The question we asked ourselves in the middle of 1994 was "can this technology be put to use in a teaching environment, and if so, how?"
Some of the answers have been fairly obvious but there are other applications which were only realised after exploration. This paper will discuss our experiences and the uses to which we have put this technology.
The various applications raised are implemented on our faculty WWW server, more normally known by its URL as "http://archpropplan.auckland.ac.nz/"
* Hardware platform independence. Graphical browsers are available for all major hardware platforms, that is, Macintosh, WINDOWS, and UNIX (X Windows). Indeed some WWW browser suppliers support each platform with the same product making the interface as identical as possible on each. This greatly increases the potential audience compared to material prepared for specially configured environments or with software available only on a single hardware platform.
* Low cost. Servers and browsers are available from a number of suppliers, the major ones are essentially free to educational institutions. In addition, the server application need not be resource demanding and thus does not require particularly powerful machines. Indeed servers can be run from machines being used at the same time for personal computing.
* Ease of maintenance. The knowledge and expertise necessary to create and maintain a server is minimal for a wide range of services. The Macintosh server is particularly elegant as the various parts can be owned and maintained by individuals through AppleShare file sharing. There are a wide range of tools now available for implementing different server functions, for example, searching, creating image maps, and analysing traffic logs.
* Portable. The server content formatted as HTML documents is portable between servers or even to standalone environments. This standalone mode can be an advantage when taking the material to non networked environments, for example CD ROMs. In general server based extensions are also portable although they may need to be rewritten for a new server. Client based helper applications would generally not be portable unless the applications are also multiplatform.
* Distributed. The WWW is inherently a distributed network system, this has two main advantages. Firstly it means that those who are best capable of maintaining their information can do so locally and it is within their own control. Secondly, the resources available can grow without the limits that centralised systems often have of storage space, processing power, and IO bandwidth.
* Internet integration. Older non graphical internet information sources such as Email, FTP, Gopher) and NEWS are all accessible through most WWW browsers. This results in one application and interface for a number of Internet resources. This is a significant benefit when users wish to use the Internet as a resource without learning a wide range of applications.
* Media rich. The fundamental "language" behind the WWW is HTML (HyperText Markup Language) has been made relatively simple but it still seems to be sufficiently rich for the majority of applications. The fundamental information types include formatted text, images, animation/video, audio/sounds. Interactive user elements include hypertext links from text or graphics, radio and check buttons, popup buttons and lists, and text entry fields. The HTML is still evolving with additional functionality and new components such as VRML (Virtual Reality ML)
* Client Extensible. Functionality can be extended at the client by a powerful "helper application" technique which allows a file to be transmitted to a client based application. This can be particularly elegant for software tutorials where a tutorial exercise or a file illustrating a particular point can be sent to the application being taught.
* Server extensible. The server functionality is extensible through what are known as CGI programs, these are scripts or applications which run on the server. These applications can thus perform any operation, they generally communicate with the user through normal HTML.
* Lecture notes A number of our lecturers have experimented with lecture notes. The main advantage being the ability to maintain one version and know that it is immediately available to the students and up-to-date. Note that the material therefore may not be static, the reader should therefore consider such lectures a resource to be read online instead of simply printing it.
One of the major differences between the WWW and earlier Internet technologies is its highly graphical nature. The Architecture department has a number of lectures which are predominantly slide based. Getting access to slide collections is always problematic and even more difficult is the linking of textural material to slides. There is a project underway at the moment to scan and document a slide collection of hundreds of slides for one of our history courses. Such a collection, indexed and available for viewing, copying, printing, or including selections into presentations is an immensely more accessible and valuable resource.
* Documentation Providing user documentation online has also proved valuable. In the case of a software tutorial, it can be viewed on the screen along with the software it relates to. The use of helper applications allows files to be downloaded to the application being taught. For example a tutorial on some statistical principle could download a dataset to the statistics package being used.
One other area of documentation is providing a record of past and ongoing student projects. So often the work done by one student is lost to the rest of the student body. Having ready access to past projects can be of great assistance to future students.
* Publishing There are many examples of electronic publications including very well known ones such as Time magazine which is entirely available on the WWW. It is quite likely that any future printed publications from the faculty would at least have a presence on the WWW. In the near future it is likely that one would greatly increase readership by having a WWW version and possibly only a WWW version.
We have made it possible for students to publish material on our server. This not only gives them exposure internationally but has formed valuable contacts both with experts in their area of interest and with fellow students with similar research interests. Recently this has been extended to the actual examined material from a particular design project, that is, the material to be marked only exists on our WWW server from where it will be marked.
* Presentations Lecture presentations can be effectively created using HTML in a similar way as one might use more conventional presentation packages. One advantage of this approach is that the lecture after it has been given can be placed online as a permanent record.
* Exhibitions Our staff and students are also running exhibitions through the WWW, there is now a sufficient audience for appreciation and critical review of such material.
* Feedback WWW servers provide a means of acquiring information from the client. This facility can be used in a number of ways, it was first employed here as a way for readers to submit comments back to the author of some WWW published material. This grew into a more powerful feedback forum for each publication on the server which allowed readers to view other readers comments and thus form discussion groups on the particular topic. This has benefits over comments sent through email which is not generally available for public viewing and further comment by others. It has the advantage over NEWS in that the "group" is more focussed than the normal NEWS groups.
* Tests We are experimenting at the moment with the idea of running test and examinations through the WWW. Certainly the value of self testing material is obvious, the scenario being that a student sits a test of a random selection of questions taken from larger set, the students answers are submitted and automatically marked, the results sent back immediately. Other scenarios involve emailing test results to the lecturer involved or storing them in one place on the server to be marked later in the conventional way. The security for this type of activity is built into recent WWW server.
* Library functions The Internet and the resources available through it can be time consuming to navigate and explore. A major component of the time spent by the managers of our server is involved in facilitating access to material which may be of interest to the courses within the faculty. This is similar to the function of a librarian except that the information is not acquired, links are created instead to the original source.
Other internet services There are a very large number of WWW servers and thus it is increasingly likely that information resources can be found for any discipline or topic. The large number of Architecture based servers have been immensely useful to our students. In the same way that we publish teaching material generated locally so we can access material from remote sites. In some cases we have been freed from the necessity of creating particular teaching material because it has been found at some other site, supposedly the reverse has also happened.
As part of their research our students are encouraged to use Internet resources. The problems we have had with this is that there quite a few different resources, each one potentially has its own application and interface. In general the interfaces have been quite poor, mainly because they are text based. Having different applications for each service introduces issues of licensing, maintaining up-to-date versions, testing each new version, and teaching users each different interface. Most WEB browsers provide consistent graphical interfaces to FTP sites, NEWS, Gopher servers, and Hyper-G servers.