Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Internet: The education interface

Harry Edgar
IMAGE Technology Research Group

G. Wright
International Office
Curtin University

The use of Internet and the International Superhighway as an undergraduate teaching resource is growing more rapidly each day. The number of computers connected to Internet is estimated to be in excess of 2 million worldwide and is increasing at the rate of 2,000 per day. Consequently, there is a growth in both the formal and informal use of Internet access by undergraduates as a means of supporting their literature and information searches.

This paper discusses some of the approaches students use to benefit from Internet access and contrasts this with the, as yet underutilised, use of Internet by academic staff. Also examined are some of the reasons why educators are slow to fully utilise this resource to enhance teaching and learning.

In addition to addressing the barriers to educators adoption of teaching strategies using Internet, the opportunities in using the network to provide international teaching and non-teaching support services, such as enrolment, course query, and assessment information, are also examined. Security of information on Internet and copyright issues are also reviewed, and examples of effective teaching using the superhighway are also given. These include examples of easy to use graphic interfaces as a means of reducing technological inhibition barriers for both educators and students.


Introduction

Internet is a network connecting computers around the world, originating from the interconnection of a few university research groups in the USA to facilitate an exchange of information to support research for military purposes. The network has since grown to include the connection of most higher educational institutions and government bodies around the world. Although Internet specifically excludes commercial activities it is now becoming widely used by industry to support their businesses.

The number of Internet connections have grown since its early adoption and by 1992 the number of computers connected approached one million. In the few years since has exploded to almost 20 million connected users. The connection of users is accelerating at a rate almost too fast to count, providing the basis of access to very rich sources of information on almost any subject.

Users connect to Internet through computer networks which have a gateway into the digital communications network. Connection between networks in towns, cities and countries are being upgraded to carry high speed computer traffic and are being further expanded using optical fibre technology to carry huge amounts of wideband, very high speed digital traffic. This enables fast transfer of large quantities of data and facilitates the use of high quality colour images, video and audio in network communications. These links are being called the "Information Superhighway", or more recently the "Infobahn".

Management of Internet is by the cooperative collaboration between bodies controlling each aspect of the technology and its transmission and access (such as the universities and Telecom). Consequently, use is governed by self imposed protocols and polite behaviour.

Internet services

Internet supports a range of services, usually maintained, managed and controlled by the host network providing the service. Access to each of the services is by the host computer providing controlled access into a "public" area. These facilities include image libraries, document and database information and other library services. Many organisations now provide research data and software for free use. Other services such as electronic mail (email) are available through mail servers on host machines.

To access these facilities the user must be registered as a user on a network and have a valid network address.

Internet use

Until recently, access to network facilities and services required some skill as a programmer or at least a knowledge of command line instructions to effect the required data transfers. This was inevitably a major hurdle for the less computer literate user and was further complicated by the need to have a knowledge of the operating system commands for the computer network providing the data. Protocols ensured the computers could talk to each other at a "digital" level but did not help if the user could not understand operating system command structures. Host computer networks often provided a "help" menu but these were often very basic, command line driven and the user needed to know how to invoke them. Further, the user needed to know which computer held the information and what the address of the computer was before even a cursory search of the required information was possible.

These shortcomings inevitably prevented all but computer buffs and the very brave (or insane) from enjoying the considerable benefits of access to computer systems around the world. This is still the preferred method of accessing data (on some occasions) by some computer specialists because data transfer can be speeded up to more optimum levels with many of the "frills" removed from the transfer mechanisms.

The transition of the computer to the desktop and its growth in popularity as a tool to be used by those without programming expertise was brought about by the development of effective graphic user interfaces (GUIs) and enabled less computer literate users to use computers effectively. Network access was improved first through the extension of the command line to command line menu options. At the very least the user was still required to be fairly keyboard literate. Choices for user services were made using a command line menu by the user responding with the number of the menu listing required. Command line instructions were still needed to extract and transfer information in many cases.

The migration of the computer to that of a desktop tool, the development of GUIs and better terminal emulation capability has changed the nature of access to Internet services. This has obviously been accelerated by the connection of many offices and desktops to institutional LANs, providing much more convenient use of computer facilities.

The more adventurous and computer literate students have always taken advantage of Internet services such as library and information search facilities like VERONICA, GOPHER, ARCHIE and email despite the poor interfaces available. The problems have been mainly that of tracking progress through these services, often with the result that the user ends up "lost in hyperspace". More recent improvements in the interfaces has helped.

The student has generally found the library search facilities and email to be the most useful of the services provided. Use of email to other students has predominated, with many staff unwilling or unable to contact students (or even each other) through email. Lack of desktop network connections prevented many staff from optimising their use of email although many institutions are addressing this issue.

Even though improvements in GUIs has negated many of the "lack of computer skills" fears, some academic staff are still reluctant to use email to communicate with students for fear of being overwhelmed by a large number of queries requiring responses.

The limited interactive (and less immediate) nature of command line or email communication on Internet has also been a limitation in its effective use in some education processes. Being predominantly text based, this was a clear barrier to most academic staff using Internet in teaching or learning other than a research and search tool.

Even submission of assignments in anything other than text based, hardcopy form has been actively discouraged by some academic staff. The advantages of electronic communications are studiously ignored by many reluctant staff.

However, the nature of a command line or menu interface produces real problems and has resulted in reducing willingness to use Internet (in that form) as an exciting educational tool.

New developments in Internet interfaces

The development of very effective GUIs has now begun to significantly impact on the use of Internet by both staff and students. Suddenly it has become an exciting and responsive medium. The first of the really practical interactive GUI for Internet has been that of MOSAIC, developed by the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Mosiac is an interactive interface which can contain text, images, audio and video. It is constructed to contain "hotspots" which are clickable areas linked to other information, forming an international web of hyperlinks. MOSAIC is now being eclipsed by newer and more flexible GUIs such as NETSCAPE, which in turn will no doubt be supplanted quickly by even more exciting and user friendly GUIs.

The catalyst for the development of GUIs such as MOSAIC was the provision of a new information service called World-Wide Web (WWW). The WWW was started by the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a means of establishing a distributed hypermedia system. This hypermedia system linked information on a wide range of computers using hyperlinks to establish a web-like structure of connected text, images, audio and video. The user may use browser programs to read and fetch documents by clicking on highlighted text which is addressed to the source location of the required information. The information may be further linked to other applications or sources by other users, forming a web of interconnected information.

One of the main advantages of this browser technology is that it can still access the more familiar applications such as Gopher, Veronica and other search and File Transfer protocols (FTP). [Smith 1993].

The transfer of the desired information to the local site reduces network traffic and the user is connected to the source only for the data transfer duration.

Students who have discovered (or been directed to discover) this new phenomenon are enthralled by the vast amount of information access that the visual interface reveals. The use of Internet has risen to such an extent that some institutions are concerned that the network traffic is too high. Techniques such as making information available in a structured form for more than one user, having previously transferred the information in to the local network.

ONCE could reduce network traffic for those teaching applications which are amenable to this approach. This leaves network capacity for those applications which need the freedom to "surf the net".

The emergence of "Information HOME Pages" for institutions and groups linked to relevant information provided by the host has grown enormously yielding a information rich window to view an organisation, its data and its activities. It also provides a convenient and attractive medium for the provision of on-line educational programs and student services.

The vast quantity of information and its myriad of web-like links is a daunting prospect for the wary network traveller but the principle GUIs have some navigation tools to assist with relatively efficient search methodologies. However the open access to worldwide sources of information exacerbate the (as yet unsolved) issues of security and copyright protection. Legal demands and a more professional approach to information protection is clearly needed. This may be compounded by the situation where copyright issues cross national boundaries with different and conflicting approaches to the problem. [Picton-Warlow and Paterson, 1994]. This can only be solved by international laws or agreements. Currently, the only effective control is that of self imposed common sense.

Opportunities with, and uses of the new interfaces

Some universities and other institutions are encouraging staff to use LANs to present course content and other supporting material. This is often extended to promote links to international sources of information considered to be relevant to the studies. Further advantages are gained when students are encouraged to present projects, art and other eminent work on the network to enhance the provision of information and the standing of the institution.

The institutions are also able to be vast electronic libraries, particularly when linked with other bodies containing complementary material, and are able to display artefacts, pictures and other media. An example of this is Australian National University which provides electronic access to a vast library of Australian and Contemporary art.

The provision of courseware, particularly if appropriately interactive, opens up new opportunities in education. These advantages are just not for those in distant locations but for those who have to (or prefer to) study in a mixed mode or open environment. Clearly, a new approach to content and delivery techniques is possible (and is even desirable) with courses presented in this way. The development of the "virtual campus" is an exciting reality. The main issue in providing educational information using MOSAIC type GUIs is that of appropriate construction for education purposes, a skill which is not yet widespread in the academic community.

The academic, constructing curriculum delivery for the electronic medium is duty bound to ensure that a simple translation of existing course material to the new environment is not carried out. This of course moves many academics into an unfamiliar realm, that of "multimedia education" with its attendant nuances and appropriate techniques.

There are some early, reasonable examples of education via Internet/WWW GUIs the most notable of these is the establishment of Internet training courses delivered on Internet. On one course over 15,000 partcipants from 50 countries registered. [Smith 1992]

Production of hypermedia material for MOSAIC and WWW is particularly easy if you have the content and image assets. These GUIs have the capability to utilise ASCII text or word processed documents and translate them to MOSAIC/WWW documents using HyperText Mark-up language (HTML) or Standard Generalised Mark-up Language (SGML) to indicate headings, pagination, paragraphs and hot-spots. The developer then has to provide the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) addresses to link to other information. [Brandwein 1994]

These GUIs also have the capacity to contain buttons and response areas, and can even have check boxes or areas for user preference selection. This enables the users to respond with queries or provide answers in text or multiple choice modes. The advantages for educational audit are yet to be fully explored or utilised.

These interactive response attributes open up new areas for Internet use to benefit students. Apart from the teaching and learning opportunities, students can benefit from the provision of institution, enrolment and course information in HOME page format. This has been carried out in only a limited and fragmented form, relying on interested staff to provide the resource rather than as a response to an institutional information strategy.

The benefits to be gained in providing student information in this way are legion. Many institutions depend on international student income and the policy of these countries to retain students at home and build their own educational resources are beginning to impact on Australian university income. Therefore, cooperative and collaborative approaches to mixed educational delivery, comprising home and Australian aspects for international students will be essential in the near future. Using Internet will assist in the delivery of Australian courses overseas and provide a very efficient means of disseminating course and study information and responding to student queries.

These opportunities take on major significance when one considers that Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are providing a computer and Internet connection in schools for every student. This is supported by funding initiatives to ensure that their countries are covered by a web of optical fibres to carry the data network traffic at the highest possible bandwidth.

The operation of respective international student services in Australian academic institutions can greatly be facilitated by even the use of simple text based email on Internet to contact prospective and existing students. Opportunities for students to respond (even with simple check boxes) to housing, travel, visa and course information in a structured manner over the network can be a very efficient aid for administrative staff. Although at least one institution in WA is committed to trialling and examining opportunities in this area, unfortunately this is yet to become wide spread practice.

Summary and conclusions

The use of Internet and its emerging GUIs with world-wide web links will have a rapidly growing impact on both teaching and non-teaching activities in Australian universities. Academic staff who are less responsive to the demands of the newer student learning approaches, including online and electronic delivery and provision, will be left behind in a rapidly expanding educational culture.

Academic institutions will have to address the provision of hardware and learning resources to take advantage of a changing educational environment. This must include the encouragement of formal and informal use of the Internet by students to communicate with their peers and other sources of knowledge. Research and training of staff in the development of suitable techniques and material is essential if students are to obtain optimum benefit from the use of new technology in their learning process.

Network managers will need to plan for an astronomic growth in network traffic and demands for network connections in to this environment. Current responses calling for a reduction in Internet traffic below self imposed limits (by cost or technology provision) do not endear them to avid Internet users caught by the WWW bug. At the same time users and developers of educational and support material on Internet will have to explore and encourage the use of more efficient search strategies and information transfer techniques to optimise the active time involved in Internet communications.

Finally, the legal profession will be driven towards a common set of security and copyright laws and rules which give maximum protection to the originator of original work yet allow its effective use in the education process. This will be a long and traumatic process and woe betide the institution or individual user chosen as the "classic" test case - it may be very expensive!

References

Vetter, R. J., Spell, C. and Ward, C. (1994). MOSAIC and the World-wide Web. IEEE Computer Journal, October, 49-54.

Blankenhorn, D. (1993). Tomorrow's Information Networks. MacNews, June, 22-27.

Smith, R. J. and Gibbs, M. (1993). Navigating the Internet. Sams Publishing.

Picton-Warlow, E. J. and Paterson, M. (1994). The law and its relationship with multimedia programming for computers. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 417-429. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/confs/iims/94/np/picton-warlow-ej.html

Smith, R. (1992). Navigating the Internet: An Interactive Workshop.

Brandwein, R. and Sendall, M. (1994). HTML Converters. http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/Tools/Filters.html [ See http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/ ]

Please cite as: Edgar, H. and Wright, G. (1995). Internet: The education interface. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p67-72. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/edgar.html


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