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A Practical Guide to Teaching
with the World Wide Web

by Susan Polyson, Steven Saltzberg, and Robert Godwin-Jones


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?"

Planning a Teaching and Learning Environment on the Web

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.

Internet Access

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 service provider.

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.

Equipment and Software

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.

Technical Support

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.

Creating Course Materials

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, you can use Java, JavaScript, and CGI to add interactivity or animation.

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 student.

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 ).

Pedagogical Issues - Breaking with Tradition

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.

Personalized learning environment

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.

Collaborative learning

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).

Multimedia Presentation of Content

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.

Reinforcing content

Organizing materials in a hypertext format allows for their integration into a variety of contexts. Interactive testing through HTML forms (processed by server-based CGI scripts) or client-side JavaScript enables self-paced learning, or the regular review of covered materials. Weighted values can be assigned to items in order to generate automatically recommendations for remedial work or more advanced study. A simple example of a JavaScript drill and practice can be found at http://128.172.170.24/cgi/js.html . Another web process for online drill and practice is through Authorware Shockwave applications; see http://www.macromedia.com/software/authorware/index.html.

Up to date information

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.

Global Resources

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.

Experiential Learning

Beyond the basic interactivity made available by Discussion Forums, and interactive software at your desktop (e.g., Java and JavaScript, Shockwave) 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/.

New Assessment Models

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.


Features of a Web-Based Learning Environment

Several online course components should be considered to support teaching pedagogy. The following features can be found in most good Web learning sites:

Site References

The Web 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.