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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 environment.

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:

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 ( 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 text commands.

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' ( 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:


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 (, 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 image.

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; 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. ( SuperCAL is a joint project of researchers at the University of Trieste, Italy, and Staffordshire University, UK ( 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:


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

Sue Cunningham
SIMA Multimedia Support Officer