Communicating to Teach and Communicating to
the World Wide Web for Science Teaching and Learning
Evelyn T. Patterson and Gregor M. Novak
Much effort is being expended on exploring the use of the WWW for
teaching and learning. One of the reasons for this is that the WWW
presents unparalleled opportunities for modes of communication with
which new and different teaching and learning techniques can develop.
Since the heart of teaching and learning is communication, the WWW
represents fertile ground for educational development.
In these early stages of development, what are some broad categories
of web usage for science education? Let's consider five categories
in terms of the technology they require and the kinds of communication
- Basic HTML - Information Delivery
- A basic HTML (hypertext markup language) document can deliver a
great deal of information including text, images, movies, and sounds.
Such documents are good for one-way communication, with information
passing from the teacher to the student(s). A WWW browser can access
such documents from the simplest storage medium, such as a floppy
disk that the student picks up in a faculty office, as well as from
a WWW server.
The vast majority of web-based education-related material falls into
this "information delivery" category. Examples are standard
syllabi, lecture notes, course calendars, etc. These materials, by
their very nature, provide little interactivity. They do not permit
communication from student to faculty, but they do provide 24 hours
a day access to information - as the students need it.
2. Basic HTML + "MailTo"
A small step beyond the most basic HTML is a document with a "MailTo" hyperlink.
A click on a hypertext link brings up an email message composition
window, allowing the student to communicate with the faculty member
via electronic mail. "Smart syllabi" which give students
the ability to email their instructors at the click of a mouse are
Another small step in HTML sophistication is an HTML document that
contains "forms." Students can interact with such documents
by typing into text boxes, clicking buttons and making selections.
The students' responses are submitted to the instructor as an email
message. This is a very powerful capability: students can interact
with an HTML document and, by clicking a button in the document being
displayed, send their responses to their instructor via email. This
requires no interaction with an email application, and no need for
a WWW server running a common gateway interface ("cgi") application.
Students do not even need an email account. This is a very useful technique
for establishing two-way communication between faculty and students
without involving a WWW server.
A scenario that may play an increasingly important role, particularly
in the use of the WWW for science education, involves a student computer
running a WWW browser, with a look and feel of an interactive application.
and/or Java applets. The natural uses of such a scheme include WWW-based
self-assessment activities for the student, drill materials, and progress-check
quizzes. The WWW technology is an ideal way to offer platform-independent,
stand-alone mini-applications such as student problem-solving exercises
and visualization and simulation activities. Although a convenient
mode of delivering such materials is via a WWW server, this is certainly
not required. The document itself contains the feedback data and logic.
Using the browser application to leverage the logic contained in the
document makes use of the innovative features of the Java technology.
Of course, a natural and likely extension to this scenario is one in
which a summary of the student's session is assembled by the browser
and submitted to a WWW server for the faculty member's use for diagnostic,
evaluation, or assessment purposes. With the recent rapid increase
for effective usage of this "client-side" (or "student-side")
interactivity are exploding. Many programs making use of heavy client-side
interactivity are currently under development, such as for example
the Johns Hopkins Virtual Engineering/Science Laboratory Course1.
Scores of Java applets being developed are excellent building blocks
with which to construct interactive student-centered WWW activities.
The Davidson College physics applets known as "physlets"2
are excellent examples; these are being used regularly in WWW-based
activities at many institutions in the U.S.
4. WWW Server
When the instructional materials reside on a WWW server, possibilities
for increasing interactivity and two-way communication unfold rapidly.
In educational settings an institutional WWW server is often available
to the faculty. However, an individual department or research group
may also maintain its own WWW server, on which educational materials
Available from a WWW server, curricular materials can provide a high
degree of interactivity that is accomplished via communication between
the student computer and the WWW server. This means that the HTML documents
themselves do not need to be particularly sophisticated, since the "intelligence" can
be provided via processing done on the WWW server.
Two remarkably different examples employing just student computer
- WWW server interaction for science education and showing the gamut
of uses of the technology are the "Virtual Prof" and "Cockpit
Physics" sites. The Virtual Prof3 site is essentially
a web-based service for students and faculty who wish to have help
preparing for and writing physics examinations. The Cockpit Physics4 site
is the home of 32 completely web-based lessons for the first semester
of introductory physics. Each lesson consists of exploration, theory,
and application sections in which students work through a variety of
activities, entering answers to free-form questions and responding
to multiple choice progress check quizzes.
By far the highest degree of interactivity and communication can
be accomplished by combining the use of a WWW server and "intelligent" HTML
in this realm that most of the "cutting edge" WWW-based educational
developments are now occurring. With both WWW server access and HTML
documents that carry their own "intelligence," all the lines
of communication are open, and in a variety of ways.
What is striking about the developments in science education in this
arena to date is the diversity of approaches, styles, and intents.
For example, a very sophisticated web-based homework grading and interactive
tutoring system called "CyberProf"5 by the University
and serves thousands of students yearly. An initiative that is extremely
sophisticated technically is the web-based introductory Chemistry course6 under
development at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis
(IUPUI). This initiative uses its technological sophistication to produce
a web-enhanced distance learning environment. Representing a completely
different mix of high technology and traditional mentoring techniques
is the "Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT)"7 initiative
underway in physics at the very same institution, IUPUI. The basic
idea behind the JITT approach to using the WWW technology is to create
a collaborative learning environment in which students work with web-based
activities, submit their responses, and find that their classroom experiences
are fundamentally shaped by what they have answered. A whole suite
of web-based materials exists to support and engage the introductory
physics students in a daily way, and these materials are fresh each
Even a fairly casual survey of current WWW-based educational materials
for physics indicates that, in this stage of infancy in the use of
the WWW technology, innovations and initiatives are being tried and
tested in a host of different directions, with a variety of intended
goals and outcomes. In the opinion of the author, the best uses of
the technology are those which use it to personalize and individualize
instruction 24 hours a day, thereby accomplishing what the human faculty
member and student cannot accomplish alone. In this way, the technology
and the human each have vital roles. How to use the WWW technology
to best create the partnership, with the ultimate goal of tailoring
the learning process to each student's needs, will be the focus of
many initiatives and assessments and much debate in the coming months
1Johns Hopkins Virtual Engineering/Science Lab: http://www.jhu.edu/~virtlab
2Davidson College physlets: http://webphysics.davidson.edu/Applets/Applets.html
3Virtual Prof: http://www.virtualprof.com/
4Cockpit Physics: http://www.usafa.af.mil/dfp/lessons/cp_home.cfm
6IUPUI Web Chemistry: http://windmills.infolab.iupui.edu/c101/public/ [requires
7"Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT)": http://webphysics.iupui.edu/152_251_mainpage.cfm For
more JITT, see also the following papers:
International Journal of Modern Physics C paper (http://webphysics.iupui.edu/IJMP.html or http://www.wspc.com.sg/journals/ijmpc/81/ijmpc81.html),
A National Research Council Invited Case Study(http://webphysics.iupui.edu/NRC/JITTnrc.html)
Evelyn Patterson is professor of physics at the U.S. Air Force
Academy in Colorado, and Gregor Novak is professor of physics at
Indiana University-Purdue University , Indianapolis (IUPUI). They
have conducted many workshops for teachers on authoring and using
instructional materials on the World Wide Web.