Teaching and Learning on the WWW
In a paper by Dr Barbara White, USDA Extension Service Distance Education
Specialist, distance education is described as: "The educational activities
which interactively link two or more people at two or more locations separated
from one another by space and/or time."
There are a couple of important points in this definition. Firstly interaction.
In order to get the most out of any form of education, the learner must
be able to interact, with the teacher, with other learners, and potentially
in CAL, with the program itself. Secondly, separation in 'space and/or time'.
For our purposes then, distance education could be describing students,
who are normally on campus, but are currently working on their own machine,
or in an open access lab, away from the traditional lecture or tutorial
Growth of distance learning
Distance education based around paper, has been around a long time. In the
1920's there was some speculation about using radio to enhance this, but
it was television that really provided a new media for distance education.
In the UK, distance education finally gained recognition with the founding
of the Open University in 1969.
The Open University uses a mixture of video, television, radio, audio cassettes
and paper based materials. The major problem with using radio, television
and these other methods for instruction is the lack of communication between
teacher and student. At the Open University this has been addressed with
summer schools and meetings with local tutors. However, as communications
technologies have developed, they have been incorporated into distance learning.
These include electronic mail (e-mail), videoconferencing, bulletin board
systems (BBSs), telephone-based audioconferencing, and recently the WWW.
The need for good distance education is becoming increasingly apparent,
as learning patterns change, with a greater requirement for retraining,
continual professional education, and of course more cost effective methods
for education being sought.
Why use the Web for distance learning?
Firstly, let me say that the WWW should not be thought of as a tool to be
used in isolation. Rather, that when combined with other methods and media
it can offer an enhanced learning environment. For example, some material
will inevitably be better in a printed form, particularly where there is
a large amount of text. It is not as easy to read from a screen as from
a book, figures of 25-33% slower reading speed generally being quoted. It
is important that whatever media is used, it is used to deliver material
appropriate to that media.
At a traditional campus, a student will receive a fairly small amount of
printed material, learning is carried out at specific times and places (eg
lectures), and there is the opportunity for interaction with the teacher
and other students. With traditional distance education, students receive
lots of printed materials, can study when and where they choose, but are
limited in the amount of interaction. CAL materials are often interactive,
they may allow the student to explore data in a way that is not possible
with traditional delivery methods. By providing CAL in a networked environment
the student also has the ability to interact with other people, encouraging
group learning. This is an important advantage of delivery using the WWW,
but it is shared by any method of network delivery. However, the WWW has
a number of other advantages:
Finding information on the WWW can be a problem, however, because there
is so much information available. This problem, and the problem of defining
the quality of information available, are being looked into. At the moment,
apart from personal recommendations and following links from other sites,
it is necessary to use some kind of search engine. Some search engines include:
- it provides a consistent interface over a range of platforms. Browsers
obviously vary in detail, but, particularly with GUI (graphical user interface)
browsers, a user familiar with one will easily be able to use any other.
It is also possible to use the same interface with different protocols,
such as FTP and GOPHER. Increasingly, WWW browsers are also providing news
readers and email built in
- it provides its own simple, compact hypermedia language for generating
- it allows the control of remote devices
- it allows multimedia applications which require little local disk
space. Video clips, for example will be downloaded to the local site before
playback, but are then automatically deleted
- files are easily updated. This allows new material to be incorporated
very rapidly, unlike a CD-ROM or printed material
- it allows access to a very wide range of information while the student
is learning, with thousands of WWW sites available for searching.
Using the WWW to provide CAL HTML
HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is used to create WWW documents. One of
its main advantages is its very short learning curve. There are a number
of on-line HTML tutorials, and editors to assist in the writing of HTML,
and within a few hours a new user may have created their own pages. Other
media can be included in a HTML document, images in-line, and others using
links to the files.
Simple courseware can be provided by converting existing documentation to
HTML. This allows documents to be structured and hypertext links included,
linking different parts of the document, or providing links to external
resources. There are a number of programs available for converting existing
documentation in various formats to HTML, for example LaTeX2HTML.
One of the very first courses offered over the WWW was a course on C++,
run by the Global Network Academy (http://info.desy.de/pub/uu-gna/html/cc/index.html).
A HTML textbook was provided (currently being re-written), along with links
to other WWW resources. An email list and a MOO was also provided. A MOO
is an object oriented MUD (Multi-User Dimension or Dungeon). It is a text
based, collaborative software, and provides a virtual environment. Participants
connect using Telnet, and can talk to other users, view other objects in
the room, move around the virtual environment and so on, using a set of
The Centre for Humanities Computing at the University of Oxford has used
HTML to provide an annotated, hypermedia' version of Isaac Rosenberg's poem
Break of Day in the Trenches' (http://info.ox.ac.uk/departments/humanities/rose/index.html).
The poem itself contains links, annotating certain lines and phrases, and
additional material relating to Issac Rosenberg, other writers and the First
World War is provided.
Tutorial Markup Language
Not quite HTML - but TML, Tutorial Markup Language, is available from Bristol.
This is an SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language) DTD (Document Type
Description) which allows tutorial questions and answer type material to
be delivered over the WWW. This will also include the ability to launch
Toolbook applications, and is hoped to be interchangeable with the CALScribe
Toolbook templates. A description of the TML, and the software is available
for download from the Bristol ETS web server at: http://www.ets.bris.ac.uk/ets/resource/tutorial/tutorial.html
Forms can easily be created in a HTML document, and can provide text input
boxes, check boxes and so on, but they do nothing without a Common Gateway
Interface (CGI) script behind them. The CGI is a standard for interfacing
external applications with information servers, such as HTTP or WWW servers.
Examples of forms in use include the Bradford Robotic Telescope (http://www.eia.brad.ac.uk/rti/),
at the Department of Industrial Technology. The telescope forms part of
a larger CAL application which includes online manuals, live reports and
astronomy lessons. Using the forms on the WWW, users can request observations.
When the data is submitted, it is automatically checked, then sent to the
telescope. The telescope will schedule jobs based on priority, and if the
weather is suitable carry them out. Users are automatically notified when
their job has been completed, and the results sent to them. To allow the
telescope to make decisions on viewing weather, a number of weather sensors
are connected. Data from these can also be viewed over the WWW, with C programs
creating bitmaps from the data according to user specifications, which are
again entered using a form. The bitmaps can then be viewed as an in-line
Launching other applications
Browsers can be configured easily so that when a particular application
specific file is encountered an external viewer is launched, and the file
viewed using this, eg a viewer to read postscript files. There has also
been some research into providing communication between other programs and
the browser. The main problem is that these developments are platform, and
usually browser, specific. The examples we will look at are for IBM compatible
PCs running Netscape Navigator.
A number of sites have been using Asymetrix Multimedia Toolbook, a very
popular card-based authoring system, and there has been much interest in
using it over the WWW. Most of the work in this area has been done or stimulated
by Paulo Tosolini in Italy, but a mirror of his site is kept at
Bristol at http://www.ets.bris.ac.uk/tosolini/;
The basis of the work is MM-WWW-PC, which is an application developed using
Toolbook. It provides a set of Toolbook handlers that can be placed in a
Toolbook application. These then send keystroke commands to Netscape allowing
MM-WWW-PC compliant Toolbook applications to interact with the Web browser.
W3 Kiosk, also written using Toolbook, uses MM-WWW-PC to provide two way
communication between Netscape and a Toolbook application. Examples of these
products, and the products themselves can be found on the Bristol site.
Another project using Toolbook is DERWeb, a project to deliver dentistry
materials. This is a joint project involving the Department of Information
Studies and the Department of Restorative Dentistry, University of Sheffield.
The demonstration on their site shows how image maps can be used, with the
student having to click on the correct part of the image, and feedback be
offered in the form of a Toolbook application. (http://www.shef.ac.uk/uni/projects/der/derweb.html)
SuperCAL is a joint project of researchers at the University of Trieste,
Italy, and Staffordshire University, UK (http://www.staffs.ac.uk/supercal/supercal.html).
It operates on a number of levels, providing simple templates for HTML materials,
and more complex interactions.
Macromedia have developed a plug-in for Netscape Navigator, Shockwave, which
allows Macromedia Director movies to be played in-line in Netscape. This
allows all the features of Director, graphics, sounds, animation and local
interactivity, to be accessed through Netscape. The plug-in software is
freely available from Macromedia at: http://www.macromedia.com/Tools/Shockwave/index.html
The WWW is a relatively new resource which can be of great use to teachers,
particularly for distance learning. Delivering complex CAL over the WWW
is still at an experimental stage, but it promises to provide a truly interactive
environment to support education.
A fuller version of this article, with many links to other sites can be
found on the SIMA web server at http://info.mcc.ac.uk/CGU/SIMA/articles/www.html
SIMA Multimedia Support Officer