The Web: A Classroom Sans Walls

Alistair B. Fraser

Professor of Meteorology
The Pennsylvania State University

Delivery of course material has changed forever. Access and animation provide interactive resources that can now be delivered into classrooms and dormitories across the world. This paper examines the educational use of the Web and speculates on the consequences of this use.
In the middle ages and in colonial North America, the classroom technology of choice was the scholar's board (which evolved into the horn book), a paddle-shaped piece of wood upon which a student inscribed a lesson being dictated. Like the modern computer, the scholar's board was interactive and would display text and images. Like the World Wide Web, its material could be transported from place to place. But it was slow--infinitely slow by modern standards. Having a much better match with the human perception and processing system, the computer opens up many pedagogical advantages over not only the scholar's board, but over its descendant, the blackboard, especially when the computer is used in conjunction with the Web.

If the computer offers advantages over the pedagogical technology of previous generations, what are they? That there might be any at all is not entirely obvious to most participants in classes or seminars for which the presenter has--as he might unfortunately put it--computerized his lecture. Generally the presentation takes the form of bulleted text supplemented by a few gratuitous (and irrelevant) images and pointlessly cute transitions. The problem is that the material being presented has been cribbed from the yellow pads of paper previously used to assemble notes for the blackboard. Accordingly, the imagination that went into its preparation has been implicitly constrained by the presentation capabilities of the blackboard. Nowhere apparent is there any pedagogical value added as a result of the availability of the more powerful platform. Nowhere apparent is the realization that the constraints upon communication have receded.

For a couple of years now, the Web has been pressed into service to do exactly the same thing (but without the cute transitions). Indeed, there are many examples of course material available on the Web, but virtually all of them represent electronic transcriptions of that which was once offered in print. This use of the Web has certainly provided the material with broad accessibility, but it is not clear that the imaginations of most of those who prepared it have proceeded beyond designing for the yellow note pad, or possibly the hard-back textbook.

In fairness to those who have developed pedagogical resources for the Web, text and images were almost the limit of its capability up until 1996. Certainly cumbersome interactively was possible through cgi scripts earlier, but although welcomed, the pedagogical usefulness of it was small by comparison to that which the teacher could offer locally through proprietary software such as HyperCard, Toolbook, or Director.

Since 1996, Web browsers (e.g., Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer) with plug-in technology can build interactive pedagogical animations to aid students in the visualization of concepts or processes, available in the classroom, the dormitory room, and indeed, anywhere on the Internet.

The fact that this is now possible certainly brings into sharper focus the question of why a teacher might wish to do build such resources for the Web. Let us break the question into two parts: the usefulness of the pedagogical resources, and the consequences of publishing them on the Web.

Usefulness of the Web's Pedagogical Resources

Visualizations. An important aspect of teaching is slipping the teacher's mental constructs into the minds of students. To this end, the computer is an unprecedented facilitator. Previously, mental models had to be turned into words, metaphors, equations, and a few line drawings for the students to use as building blocks to reconstruct their personal mental models. These attempts were rarely better than partially successful.

Now one can create a computer visualization (e.g., in the form of an interactive animation) that enables a smoother transfer of the mental model into the students' minds. A larger fraction of the class can now internalize the concepts successfully. This changes the handling of all topics, those traditionally offered and those not seemingly presentable; concepts previously deemed too complex for a low-level course can now be understood when mediated by an effective visualization.

Although results are still anecdotal, consisting of a succession of student surveys and final examinations, they seem to provide systematic evidence that this approach does indeed increase the accessibility of concepts to students.

Access. Prior to the Web, a student in a class where computer visualizations were frequently offered was presented with a problem: how does one capture the material for later reflection and study. Note-taking has its deficiencies; indeed, it was the very inadequacies of this sort of textual approach which had prompted the development of the new resources in the first place. Various approaches have been tried (collections of screen dumps available from the local copy house; copies of the software available in local laboratories) with modest success. With new advancements on the Web, a student can explore the same materials used in class by the instructor from virtually anywhere, at any time, and as often as needed.

Making it work. The Web browser, a way to browse the Internet, requires that much work be done before it can be effectively employed directly in the classroom. Turning a Web browser into an effective means of presenting a whole course's worth of material in a classroom is involved. The approach adopted in my class involved building a special classroom interface. Now when the course is entered, the standard browser controls vanish and a new set (created using frames and JavaScript) appear. These provide easy access from any screen to features such as the hierarchical structure of the course, the default forward and reverse path, history, help screens, a glossary, and standard supporting resources of use in both the classroom and dormitory.

Equally important is the establishment of a convention for the navigation and exploration of resources to make it obvious after a couple of minutes of orientation how to find and understand material from anywhere in the course. This has been done by adopting a convention which specifies the order in which buttons of various shapes and locations should be explored.

In practice, the instructor stands by a large projection screen at the front of the class and remotely controls the computer from which material is projected. The instructor proceeds as in any normal class--lecturing, promoting discussion, posing questions, even cajoling, and generally interacting with the students. The differences are that the session includes a powerful suite of resources to help present and promote the understanding of the material, and that outside the classroom, the students can continue to interact with the same resources.

Curious implications. Let us imagine that a whole course has now been developed and deposited on a Web server. It contains text, graphics, photographs, video clips, self-running animations, interactive animations and pedagogical models the parameters for which can be chosen by the user--in short, everything the instructor would want, to supplement and elaborate on every topic in the course. The instructor uses the material to facilitate explanations in class; the students use the material outside of class, not only to review, but also to engage in further explorations of the concepts.

My introductory course in meteorology began in the fall of 1996. All the resources available to the instructor were made available to the students and also to any other instructor and student on the Internet. In the Spring 1997 semester, the course was offered from the same server not only on the main campus of Penn State University, but also at one of its many branch campuses, for which the numbers would not have previously justified it.

If we do not limit its accessibility by domain, which we have no plans to do, the material can be used anywhere in the world.


There are presently 600 institutions of higher education in the U.S. teaching a vaguely comparable introductory meteorology course. Inasmuch as non-meteorologists teach 80% of those courses, it should obviously be useful to have all the resources needed to deliver their course available through the universities' access to the Web. On another level, there are the high school courses such as "Earth Science." The list goes on and on.

Now imagine, as will happen, that every discipline creates such resources at all levels and makes them available to the world. How will courses be offered. Will a student sitting at home, but titularly enrolled in a college in one state find herself taking an English course which has its resources brought in from Harvard, a chemistry course from Princeton and a meteorology course from Penn State University? And if so, the question of the function of the local instructor will be brought into much sharp focus. Over the next decade as high quality interactive resources are delivered into classrooms and dormitories across the world, we can expect that our profession as teachers will evolve more than it did over the previous century.

But, if the role of teachers will evolve, one might expect the role of universities to evolve even further. At present, most universities operate in much the same way computer firms did more than a decade ago: they attempt to offer the total solution. Just as a computer company used to try to trap a customer into buying everything from itself--basic machine, peripherals, operating system, software, maintenance contract--universities now provide students with virtually all of their classes, their books, board, room and then toss in a social life. The computer industry was forced to go to an open structure with boards, peripherals, and software being offered as plug-ins from a wide variety of suppliers. Will, the universities be able to make the transition to an open structure in which many of the undergraduate credits arrive from a dozen or so different off-campus sites? (Some of these sources may well be from businesses set up to provide such resources, rather than from other universities). With the potential for a student at one location--home, say--to take courses from many other locations and taught by professors at even other locations, what will be the function of the undergraduate institution, itself? When the physical plant ceases to be the gathering place for students or teachers, will a university's survival turn on its role as an agent of certification? Alas, even the power to award degrees is a power bestowed from elsewhere in the society, so it too might pass. Look for tumult in the ranks of undergraduate institutions over the next decade or so.



Following the ideas laid out in this essay, resources for the course, A Survey of Atmospheric Science , are being built. You are welcome to explore them, but bear two things in mind: there are fairly stiff technical requirements for entrance (discussed on the set-up page); and only a small portion of the material is in place as yet.

return to HORIZON BORDER=0 WIDTH=180 HEIGHT=110>