FEd December 1997 Newsletter - Communicating to Teach and Communicating to Learn: Using the World Wide Web for Science Teaching and Learning

December 1997



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Communicating to Teach and Communicating to Learn: Using 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 they foster.

  1. Basic HTML - Information Delivery
  2. 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 examples.

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.

3. Web pages including Java/JavaScript, No 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. The interactivity is built into the document itself via JavaScript 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 in capabilities afforded by JavaScript and Java applets, the possibilities 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 may reside.

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.

5. WWW Server, Web pages with JavaScript/Java

By far the highest degree of interactivity and communication can be accomplished by combining the use of a WWW server and "intelligent" HTML documents which include JavaScript and/or call Java applets. It is 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 of Illinois-Urbana involves extensive JavaScript and WWW server programming 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 semester.

In Summary:

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 and years.


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

5CyberProf: http://cyber.ccsr.uiuc.edu/cyberprof/general/homepage/Newpage/first.html

6IUPUI Web Chemistry: http://windmills.infolab.iupui.edu/c101/public/ [requires Java]

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.