The World wide Web and the Internet have enticed faculty with promises
of access, inter-activity, ease of use, and a potential universal presence
in the lives of students and teachers. For many faculty, the question is
not "should I use the Web in my class?", but "how
do I get started?", and "What does a good web course contain?"
As you begin to consider the Web as a teaching and learning environment, but before you begin creating your Internet presence, operational issues should be considered.
When considering putting course materials online, take a realistic look
at your computing environment. Students will be accessing your course materials
by dialing in from home, by using equipment in on-campus computer classrooms
or labs, or through campus network connections in dorms or other facilities.
Knowing how your students will be accessing your course materials is important
for two reasons - connection speed and availability of access.
Be prepared to tell your students how they will be able to access your
on-line course. For example, identify which campus labs have Internet access
and the necessary software, provide information about campus SLIP/PPP dial-in
services, and how to obtain Internet access through a commercial Internet
Connection speed will vary depending on whether students are accessing the online materials via campus network connections or through dial-in. You'll want to take this into consideration when deciding what types of media to include in your course materials. For example, you may be able to experiment with including video clips if students will primarily be accessing these materials through faster on-campus network connections.
Identifying student computer hardware and software requirements should
be a prerequisite to designing your on-line course materials. Why spend
time enhancing your instructional materials with snazzy sound clips if
most of your students don't have access to a computer capable of playing
back the sounds?
Similarly, there are many Web browser programs available and no two
are exactly alike. Make certain that the Web features you include in your
on-line course materials are supported by the browser software that your
students will be using. Requiring students to conform to using a single
browser can be essential and makes it easier to configure the computer
with the appropriate software (e.g., plug-ins and helper apps) . In addition
standards assure a better way to share documents and can be an effective
way of distributing course materials to students - and also of allowing
students to submit homework assignments to the instructor.
One thing you can be sure of -- there will be technical problems
to resolve. Investigate the technical support that is available to students
on-campus and off-campus (e.g., internet service providers and web-based
resources). The more experience you have in working with the technology,
the easier it will be to direct students to appropriate technical assistance.
Once you've dealt with the operational issues, now you need to become
an HTML expert - right? Well, maybe… but not necessarily. Faculty will
differ in the degree to which they want to become involved in the technical
details. Some faculty will love the details, others will just want the
end result, with as little pain and suffering as possible in the process.
Fortunately, there are many different approaches to developing online course
materials - some requiring sophisticated technology skills, some requiring
only moderate or minimal skills.
HTML (hypertext markup language) is the basic "programming language"
of the Web. All web documents are created using HTML. But you don't necessarily
have to know anything about HTML in order to create web documents. In the
past year many new software products have been developed which make the
creation of HTML documents almost as easy as using standard word processing
software. In addition, Microsoft and WordPerfect have HTML add-ins to their
word processors. Of course, the more you know about HTML, the more sophisticated
you can make your pages. If you wish to explore the higher end of technology,
The next challenge is that once you've created your web pages, they
must be "served" on a web server. You may need to work with your
university's computing staff to move your web pages to the institution's
web server. Or, in some cases, you may opt to run your own personal or
departmental web server. Another challenge could exist if you wish to restrict
access to only students in your class. In this case you will need to work
with your web server administrator to create logins and passwords for each
Many of these technical and logistic challenges has been solved recently
by some new software products designed to make it easier for instructors
to create, serve and administer online courses. One example of software
that can help in building a course for the Web is Web Course In A Box
(WCB), developed at Virginia Commonwealth University in partnership
with EDUCOM/National Learning Infrastructure Initiative's Partnership for
Distributed Learning. The software is designed to allow faculty to create
and serve online course materials using fill-in forms and on-line templates.
It also allows instructors to easily control access by assigning student
logins and passwords. In addition, no knowledge of HTML is required, and
WCB automatically puts your pages on the web server. (For information on
WCB, see http://madduck.mmd.vcu.edu/wcb/wcb.html
It's important to not lose sight of teaching goals as you go about mastering the technology. The best advice with regard to pedagogy is to take time to explore, exploit and experiment with integrating the unique features of the Web into your teaching environment. Think beyond traditional classroom paradigms as you begin creating your on-line course materials, and consider incorporating a few of the following Web-based learning paradigms.
The Web lends itself to student-centered learning. The hypertextual
organization allows materials at different levels of detail or difficulty
to be made available to students without imposing a pre-determined path
for them to follow. Students can create individually tailored paths to
master the desired goals, moving at their own speed and retrieving additional
information as needed. Tracing mechanisms can assist developers/teachers
in learning what kinds of links students use most often.
Studies have shown that learners profit immeasurably from environments
which encourage shared learning. The Web presents an especially good environment
for asynchronous collaboration in which students work together but not
necessarily at the same time. Teachers of English composition, for example,
have found that a networked writing environment provides an effective means
to get students to write more and to learn from one another. Faculty in
many disciplines have found that Web-based discussion forums can lead to
fuller participation in class discussion by all students. An interesting
example of collaborative learning is the International E-Mail Tandem Network
which matches students in foreign lands (not taking the same course) to
enhance student language skills (see http://tandem.uni-trier.de/Tandem/email/infen.html).
The Web is providing an increasingly rich variety of media through which to present learning materials, including exciting new options like streaming audio and video (e.g., RealAudio at http://www.realaudio.com). Animations, for example, now possible through browser plug-ins such as Shockwave, can give effective simulations of science experiments. In language learning sound and video can supply an electronic immersion in the target culture using authentic materials by native speakers. Using a variety of media (text, graphics, audio, video) to present the material may also accommodate individual learning styles, and provide approaches for both visual and auditory learners.
Not only do textbooks by necessity use a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, they also in our fast moving world tend to become out of date soon after publication. Web materials allow for easy updating, although it is of course the content providers' responsibility to do so. In many fields access to recent research over the Web is becoming more and more a reality, through discussion groups, electronic journals and on-line conference presentations. We are not yet at the point at which a study in any field can rely solely on the Web as a research source, but the Web is becoming indispensable in ensuring that the most recent disciplinary discussions are consulted.
One of the marvels of the Web has always been the ease and transparency
with which local and global resources are combined. Instructors can put
their own materials on line and link them to resources from throughout
the world. From the student's perspective both are just a click away. This
offers the possibility of students consulting disciplinary experts' on-line
contributions as easily as they read the course syllabus.
Beyond the basic interactivity made available by Discussion Forums,
is a world of immersion into simulated experiences. These technologies
allow you to create and visit virtual places, create new personas, and
interact with voice, music, graphics, and changing environments that you
couldn't afford (nor would necessarily want) to experience in real life.
A good example, The Palace, can be found at http://www.thepalace.com/.
Invariably the question arises that we don't know how to properly evaluate
students that we canít see, hear and interact with in person. For
some this hurdle seems insurmountable; for others a challenge. But for
each there are models to consider. At Virginia
Commonwealth University's Execunet Program (a Masters Degree in Health
Administration) students are on campus for limited periods of time for
orientation and testing. In other programs a proctoring system is set up
so that students can come to labs throughout the region to participate
in the virtual classroom or to take an exam. And for some faculty, the
interactive capabilities of the internet provide them with better assessment
feedback than the traditional classroom.
Experience has helped us to better understand the features of a Web-based
course environment and the tools that can enhance teaching and learning.
And although the Web for teaching and learning remains in its infancy,
we do have an exciting and potentially revolutionary beginning.
Several online course components should be considered to support teaching
pedagogy. The following features can be found in most good Web learning
Educational Site References is a list of Web sites that demonstrate
some of the features of a Web-based learning environment described above.
The article, "A Practical Guide to Teaching with the World Wide Web" was originally published in the September, 1996 issue of Syllabus magazine, and appears here with permission from Syllabus Press.