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World Wide Web as a Tool for Teaching and Research in Visualization

Ken Brodlie

My interest in the web is as a person who lectures and does research in graphics and visualization - that is, primarily as a user of the information.

Clearly there is no shortage of information. A quick search using the WebCrawler for the keyword 'visualization' returned some 850 URL's - and a further 100 when the 'z' in 'visualization' was replaced by 's'! This is too much information, and useless in an educational context. However help is at hand through the Scientific Visualization Weblet, which lists a manageable set of some 50 important URLs with a paragraph on each. This is maintained by NASA in the US. The URLs are structured in four groups according to the information provider: universities; government labs; commercial; and military.

But how useful is this material in education? Can a lecture course be created simply by recommending a particular traversal of the information?

In a recent exercise with my MSc visualization class at Leeds, I have set out to answer these questions. I asked the students to review the URLs in the weblet and report back with:

The results were interesting. First of all, the students really enjoyed the exercise and I am convinced it was a good educational experience for them. They found good background reading material on applications of visualization (for example in chemistry) and good descriptions of visualization products. They were stimulated by being able to read about the latest research - which was often reported in a less intimidating manner than many papers in journals. They enjoyed the colour images and videos

But all was not ideal. The students found the material to have a promotional rather than educational bias - even research material has a slant which seems to be advertising the institution. Not all URLs are kept up-to-date. The 'here today, gone tomorrow' URLs were also a problem (not least when it came to marking!)

So the lectures cannot yet be replaced by the WWW tour - at least in visualization. A simple improvement one can make is the structuring of a visualization weblet - it would be nice to have it structured by information, rather than information provider, and a final year student at Leeds is currently helping me do this.

As a visualization researcher, the web offers three new opportunities. First, it is a novel publication medium whereby research results may be reported. Second, it is a source of information when tackling a new research topic, or when training a new research student - and indeed I have successfully used it in both contexts when beginning research in visualization of medical imaging using SPECT. Most exciting of all to the researcher is the possibility of using WWW as a means of collaboration either between visualization researchers, or as a tool for enabling collaboration in visualization itself.

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