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The World Wide Web as a teaching tool

This section is the second of four sections designed to introduce academics and students to the potential use of the Internet as a teaching and research resource. It describes the potential of using the World Wide Web as a teaching tool: the types of material that can be mounted, the problems of design, and some possible solutions.

The possibilities offered by the Web

The World Wide Web (or the Web) is one of the most accessible tools available for academics to use. It allows an easy means of publishing material, it has a low learning-curve, the majority of its browsers are graphical and user-friendly, and above all it is free to most people in Higher Education. The Web works on a client-server principle. The user launches their browser (e.g.. Netscape) on their machine which in turn interrogates a server retrieving files. Files are located via their Uniform Resource Locator (URL) unique address detailing the protocol for transferring the data, the domain name of the Web server, and the pathname/filename of the actual document. For readers who wish to know more about the practicalities behind Web authoring consult the series of tutorials created by Netskills (a UK service).

The Internet has become the major outlet for publishing digital resources. Multimedia authoring tools are less popular as they tend to support publication on CD-ROM. For online publication, specialist software and plug-ins are required to create and support complex sites that include audio, moving images and interaction (additional information can be found on the Multimedia and Object Oriented Databases page).

Advantages of the Web

  1. Assuming one has access to a Web server (usually your institution's mainframe), publication of material (not including copyright costs) is free.
  2. HTML, the mark-up language used in creating World Wide Web documents, is very easy to learn.
  3. The Web uses non-propriety standards thus giving the site a longer life expectancy: e.g.. text is in plain ASCII, HTML, and XML; graphics appear as JPEG or GIF (thus industry standard). It is subsequently cross-platform (i.e.. the same document can be viewed through a Macintosh, a Windows machine, a UNIX box, and even a dumb terminal using such browsers as LYNX though this necessitates the loss of multimedia elements). However, some multimedia resources require specific software plug-ins for viewing, and these can be platform and Web-browser specific.
  4. Once established, the material is made available to an international audience amounting to millions (with no extra distribution costs).
  5. Linking from the document is not restricted to data elsewhere on the machine's hard drive or the CD-ROM the program is distributed on, but can be international. In turn, if you are thinking of creating a virtual environment for your students, the Web will allow you to link, with ease, to other Universities.
  6. Software needed for the Web is free in most cases (both browsers and servers) or very cheap, and are easy to use.
  7. The Web can deliver multimedia elements in addition to text. Additionally, plug-ins for the various browsers allow users to interact with VRML sites.
  8. Editing of existing files is straightforward. Furthermore, as it works on a client/server basis there is no onus on the developer to re-issue upgrades.

Disadvantages of the Web

  1. At present, the screen design facilities and animation capabilities of the Web are not as advanced as those provided with most of the authoring packages. Links to software and reviews of moving images and audio resources are available from Streaming Media World.
  2. Access on networks is slow (probably the most consistent criticism levelled at publishing on the Internet). However, in answer to this, it should not be forgotten that HTML files can be read from local networks or hard drives thus dispensing with the reliance on the speed of the Internet. Academics wishing to provide on-line tutorials or notes via the Web could even distribute their files on floppy disks, CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs.
  3. By opening up access to an international audience there are serious implications for copyright issues. A developer wishing to publish on the Web will probably have to agree world rights on the material they use. In short, the technical problems, though still there on the Web, are far outweighed by the advantages of using it, making it a more attractive prospect for the development of computer-based learning material than traditional multimedia-authoring packages (though it should be noted that manufacturers of the latter are constantly seeking ways to deliver traditional multimedia packages through Web browsers).

Navigating the Web

Portals/gateways to online resources have been growing since the creation of the Internet, and some very specialized resources are now available. Within the UK, the Resource Discovery Network provides subject-specific gateways to online resources for the higher education sector. Directories such as Yahoo! and About.com also provide structured access to the Web by grouping sites.

Tools and tutorials are also available for evaluating Web pages. Susan Beck of New Mexico State University Library has an entertaining and useful tutorial titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources. The UK's RDN has developed a suite of subject-specific guides to the Internet for undergraduates - the Virtual Training Suite. These give pointers to quality online resources for a range of subjects, and guidelines on finding and evaluating Web sites.

Ideas for Web pages

The Web offers various opportunities for the academic who wishes to mount pedagogical material via the Internet. The following lists the type of things that have been done but should in no way be seen as a definitive list.

  1. Create a personal home page This will act as a focal point for students to come to, detailing course times and changes, reading lists, and so on. An example of this is Mark Goodacre's home page, University of Birmingham, which has links to other pages he has created to support his teaching and research in Theology.
  2. Publish lecture notes and handouts These can be simply taken from word-processors and converted using standard HTML conversion tools. The question arises as to the most appropriate timing for publishing, e.g.. putting up handouts before the lecture increases the risk of students not attending your class. A good example of such publications is the international collaboration behind ORB The On-line Resource Book for Medievalists. Here, as well as collecting together essays and links to other Web sites, academics from around the world have been contributing their lecture notes and syllabi to create a global resource for historians and literature students.
  3. Design courseware unique to Web (involving interaction/feedback) In many ways this presents the most exciting use of the Web as it includes advanced utilisation of HTML. The UK's University and Colleges Information Systems Association (UK) Awards has collected together a series of such Web tutorials as part of their annual awards. These are divided into various categories, which change annually. The tutorials cover a variety of subject-areas and provide excellent examples of the types of models academics are adopting.
  4. Assessment It is of course possible to create Web pages that provide some form of feedback and assessment procedure, although to do so with any sophistication requires some knowledge of CGI scripting, Java, and/or JavaScript. However, assessment, due to the computer's inability to cope efficiently with natural languages, usually takes the form of assessing how well students recognise and recall information. In other words it is quite good at testing knowledge retention, but not suited for assessing the student's ability to present an argument (hence such computer-aided assessment is rarely suited for the humanities). In addition the continual occurrence of assessment within the Web site can seriously interrupt the flow or cognitive engagement of the student, i.e.. it is important to avoid over-testing. Further guidance can be found from the Computer Assisted Assessment Web site.

Some rules

When creating Web pages it is useful to obey the following rules:

  1. As always evaluate other web sites to find out what works and what does not (a good starting point is the Resource Discovery Network.
  2. Identify to yourself the goals of the web page.
  3. Plan a site overview on paper.
  4. Decide from the beginning how much interaction/assessment there will be in the site and at what point it is presented to the user.
  5. Assemble the data you will be using in the course and establish from the beginning which parts will need copyright clearance (see a recent report: Weedon, R. (2000) Policy Approaches to Copyright in HEIs. Centre for Educational Systems, University of Strathclyde).
  6. Create the Web pages, possibly using conversion tools, or HTML editors (see the reviews of various Web tools at the University of Newcastle).
  7. Test the site using as many browsers and different specifications of hardware as you have access to.
  8. Evaluate the Web site for accessibility - within the UK, education institutions must ensure that all teaching and research materials can be accessed by all students (for further information, visit the DISinHE site).
  9. Evaluate the Web site, looking at such things as navigation and content. This can often be done by inviting remote users to look at the pages and to provide comments before trying them out on students.
  10. Advertise your site (assuming you wish to let remote users in) on appropriate discussion lists (e.g. at JISCMail) and Web-based submission pages (e.g.Submit-it!).

Further resources

Reports from the JTAP Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature Project . The Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature are a set of multimedia tutorials. The project produced a wide range of documents covering a range of issues, including a review of technologies and methods to support online learning, formats and specifications for digitization, managing workflow, copyright, and intellectual access.

Building Digital Collections - a page of links from the Library of Congress to reports detailing how the American Memory Collections were developed and published online.

CITE - Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education is published by the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (USA). The journal publishes case studies and discussion articles on the role and impact of new technologies on school teaching and learning.

EDUCAUSE Quarterly and EDUCAUSE Review are both published by EDUCAUSE. EDUCAUSE Quarterly is rich in case studies and evaluations of the use of C&IT in teaching, research and management in higher education; EDUCAUSE Review covers similar ground, but in a more discursive fashion. Both focus on USA events and practices.

Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning is an online publication promoting innovation in computer-enhanced learning in higher education. It is published by Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA.

Journal of Interactive Multimedia in Education. JIME is a refereed online journal launched in 1996 by the Open University. It publishes articles on theoretical and practical applications of new technologies to all levels of education within and beyond the UK.

R. McGreal & M. Elliott (2001). Learning on the Web. TeleEducation, New Brunswick, Canada. An extended discussion of the issues surrounding the successful implementation of online resources for teaching and learning, particularly in a distance learning environment.

brandon-hall.com. This is a US paper-based newsletter designed for training professionals and multimedia developers. The Web site has abstracts of articles together with pointers to further resources and examples of web-based training sites.

Please note that this page was authored during April 2001, and apart from a few minor amendments since that date has remained as it was. Therefore some of the links may have changed or no longer link to the resources indicated. Please contact the webmasters@elpub.org concerning broken links and he will attempt to direct you to a suitable alternative link. (January 2003)

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