WebTutor: An Interactive World Wide Web Tutorial

Devin Bent

Department of Political Science
James Madison University

WebTutor is an interactive software tutorial designed to transform novice computer users into competent, informed browsers of the World Wide Web (WWW) and to instill both the belief and the practice that the Web is a serious research tool and information source. Little or no additional support is required from a teacher, professor, or trainer. Developed in Astound 2.0 for windows, the tutorial is compatible with Windows3.x and Windows95. The compressed tutorial with an installation program fits on a single disk. A rough Macintosh version is under construction. Since the fall of 1995, WebTutor has been installed in computer labs on the James Madison University (JMU) campus and has been used successfully by thousands of students in a variety of disciplines. Faculty members can make WWW assignments to students without spending class time for instruction. There are no problems created by slow response time or access. This paper describes the development of the tutorial, its use as an educational tool, its evaluation (assessment) and consequent revision, and the conclusions and recommendations flowing from the experience.


Audience. I developed WebTutor for college or high school students with limited or no computer experience, regardless of their majors. Other audiences include college and university faculty and administrators, and business people. I have had computer training experience both as a professor and as director of a small business development center and designed the tutorial for both education and business use.

Specifications. I prepared WebTutor in Astound for Windows version 2. It runs in either Windows3.x or Windows95. Compressed on a single disk with an installation program, it requires 3.9 MB of disk space installed and contains approximately 160 slides with graphics, animation and interaction. It will run on a 486 VGA with 4 MB of RAM, but looks and runs much better on a 256 color Pentium with 8 MB of RAM. A rough Macintosh version is under construction.

I completed Web Tutor in early September 1995 and installed it in three of JMU's computer labs. In addition, WebTutor was used in a variety of classes. Early problems were created by the size of the original tutorial: the more than seven megabyte file in the self-executing version ran very slowly on the 486s. A new smaller version with reduced length and increased use of graphics and animation has run without problems. An installation program that allows distribution on one disk and eases installation (in either Windows 3.x or Windows95, click on "Run"; and type "a:setup") using the Freemen Installer version 2.2c, was developed by Kevin Jon Hegg, then a private consultant and now with JMU Computing Support. A revised user interface is currently under development by Patricia S. Williams of the JMU Center for MultiMedia.

Use As an Educational Tool

The Web tutorial, although not on the Web, is very Web-like: there is a significant use of graphics, animation, and interaction; the user moves around the tutorial by clicking on colored text or objects; the user does not have to follow a preset linear path, but instead can select a path responding to the user's own interests and needs. The WebTutor introduces one item, button or concept at a time. A threefold approach introduces each item: the user reads about the item, sees a graphical depiction, and then uses the item. For instance, the function of the down arrow in a scroll bar is described in words and at the same time illustrated graphically. The user then continues by clicking on the down arrow to go down the page.

Most faculty members quickly grasp the tutorial's use and advantages. They can make Web assignments without having to spend any class time explaining the Web. Since the tutorial is on local computers, faculty can assign the tutorial without worrying about slow response times or other access problems. Although the tutorial runs slowly on older, less powerful computers, it is significantly faster than accessing a website with comparable graphics and animation. (There are many Web tutorials residing on the web: for examples see the Netscape and Microsoft implementations or Hughes (1994).) Finally, since the tutorial does not reside on the Web, it is accessible to students with no existing computer familiarity. All they need is a set of instructions on how to find the tutorial on the computer. For faculty members who especially enjoy teaching their students how to use the WWW, the tutorial is of limited or no use. For most faculty members, however, the WebTutor should be an educational asset.

In five sections, the WebTutor deals with (a) the concepts and buttons of the tutorial itself, (b) the Internet, (c) the WWW, (d) the concepts of browser/server or client/server relationship, and (e) the hands-on use of a browser. The first section introduces--one at a time--those concepts and buttons employed in the WebTutor. Because almost all of these have counterparts in a browser, the user is simultaneously introduced to the buttons and concepts of browsing. The user learns a back button, a replay button (reload button), a menu button (home button), up and down scroll buttons, and the concept of linking by clicking on colored text or objects with colored outlines. Use of the buttons and colored text and objects to move through the tutorial provides learning in a low stress, enjoyable manner. It is always clear to the user where to click since the recommended choice is shown by a blinking light bulb. Users always have the option of clicking on the menu button and skipping ahead, as appropriate.

The next three sections (Internet, the WWW, and the concepts of a browser/server relationship) inform effective use and at the same time reinforce the learning of the first section. The user continues to move through the tutorial using the buttons and colored text. Example: the user clicks on "Library of Congress" (in blue) on the representation of a computer screen and the URL goes flying off, pausing long enough to be recognizable, to a representation of distant Library of Congress (U.S.). (Distance is shown by perspective; the URL gets smaller as it approaches the Library.) Back then comes the Library of Congress home page (getting larger as it approaches the screen). Each of these three sections has a one page review at the end. The user can click on the highlighted words to go back to review the relevant slides.

The last section has multiple parts and its own submenu. The section starts with a representation of a browser downloading a modified Smithsonian Institution (U.S.) home page. It is a fairly good representation of a browser downloading: the messages appear, the icon moves, the home page appears, and simultaneously the icon stops moving, and the URL and document name appear. Then the browser is taken apart and explained one piece at a time. Again, the user learns not just by being shown and told, but by clicking and using. For instance, the user, while looking at a representation of the White House (U.S.) on the screen, clicks on "Bookmarks." The pull-down menu appears and the user clicks on "Add," and "White House" is added to the bookmark list. Once all the key parts have been demonstrated, the browser comes back together and the user can review any piece by clicking on that part of the browser.

Three exercises use an actual browser. (The tutorial finds and uses the most recently installed browser on the user's computer.) In each exercise the user first is given any additional information required for that exercise. A button click calls up the browser. In addition, the WebTutor passes the browser so that the first document called up is an html file that provides a starting point for the exercise. (There are three html files: one for each of the exercises. They also reside on the local computer, but provide real links to sites on the WWW.) The first exercise is to follow links. Linking.htm provides four good general purpose starting points. In the second exercise, the tutorial explains search engines and gives the user practice by clicking on a window, typing in a word, and clicking on a search button. Hints are provided regarding effective search techniques. Then Searchin.htm provides links to five search engines. The last exercise is to key in a URL. WebTutor shows how this is done and then Keying.htm provides a short list of URLs. At the completion of this exercise, the user should be qualified to handle a browser.

All three exercises are deliberately very general in nature and all the links are provided on the three very simple html files, so that a teacher or trainer with the slightest familiarity with html can add more specific instructions tailored to a particular discipline, course, or country.

Evaluation and Revision

Peer assessment. Approximately 50 copies of the WebTutor have been distributed to faculty in a variety of disciplines in the U.S. and other countries (e.g., Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, and South Africa), and to other persons who work with educational technology. Disciplines include civil engineering, education, family studies, food engineering, history, management, media technology, physics, political science, psychology, soil science, statistics, and veterinary medicine. Starting in the fall of 1995, copies were sent out in response to specific requests. Recipients, told they could use the WebTutor with their students or colleagues, were later queried about: the level of students using the tutorial; effectiveness of the tutorial in imparting Web knowledge, skills, and interest; any problems encountered; and any suggestions for improvement. To date, 20 responses have been received. The suggestions (e.g., the reduction of the size-- number of bytes--of the tutorial, the development of the installation program, and the revision of the interface) have been very useful, and many have been incorporated into the ongoing revision of the tutorial. Useful technical advice came from an editor, who suggested reducing the color depth from 16.7 million colors to 256 colors, resulting in a size reduction of approximately 2 megabytes. A software developer suggested that the use of standard fonts found on any windows computer would eliminate the need to bitmap the fonts. This resulted in a savings of approximately a megabyte. Several respondents suggested that the fonts (print) were too large, which might suggest to the users that the tutorial was "too basic." Nonetheless, most peer respondents were quite positive about the tutorial.

Student assessment. Testing on users while there is still the opportunity to revise the courseware has been called formative evaluation:

One important use of evaluation is while it [the software] is being developed: testing it on learners while there are still resources for modifying it.. . . . This kind of testing is called formative evaluation, as it is used to modify ("form") the material. (Draper, 1996).

One faculty member, Professor Nancy Vick of Longwood College, sent the evaluations completed by 12 students. Predominantly in-service teachers, their class was in instructional media and educational technology in a graduate program in curriculum development. The 12 in-service teachers provided systematic evaluation on a form developed by their professor and provided open-ended comments by e-mail. They were unanimous in stating that the tutorial provided clear directions and was accurate and current. They were positive concerning learner participation and the technical quality of the tutorial. However, they were less positive about the tutorial's ability to "arouse motivation/maintain interest," rating this only slightly above average. In part, the failure to maintain interest may reflect the slowness of the tutorial on their machines: they were using 486's with 4 megabytes of RAM. They almost all mentioned how slow the tutorial was. They made a number of specific suggestions that were largely incorporated into the tutorial. Their comments regarding slowness and their average rating on motivation and interest contributed to further revision described below.

In the fall of 1995, we at JMU assigned WebTutor to 18 students in a one credit course that provides an introduction to the university, the political science department's programs, and to possible careers. Using the tutorial, the students were to find a site relevant to a potential career. Instructions with respect to the use of the tutorial consisted only of a single page on how to find the tutorial on the computers in the labs. Students were asked to hand in one typed page describing the site. In addition, they were invited to identify problems with the WebTutor. Any identification of a problem that resulted in a revision of the WebTutor would add one point to their grade. All 18 students completed the assignment without requiring assistance, but the invitation to identify problems resulted only in the correction of misspellings and word omissions.

Student surveys. In the Spring 1996 semester, approximately 150 students in two U.S. Government (political science) courses at JMU were surveyed at the start of the semester concerning computer knowledge and use in general and Web knowledge and use in particular. Both courses are also options in the university's general studies program and attract an overwhelming preponderance of student majors other than political science. The courses are very similar in content except that one included a WebTutor exercise and the other did not. The Web assignment was to use the tutorial and write a one page description of a political science or political site relevant to the course. Students received only a single page of written instructions on how to find the WebTutor on the lab computers. This single minimal Web assignment and the lack of additional instruction was intended to isolate the impact of the tutorial as opposed to the impact of multiple assignments, additional instruction, classroom reinforcement generally, or the author's enthusiasm for the Web.

The initial (pre-WebTutor) survey of the 150 U.S. Government students found the students quite satisfied with their ability to learn new computer programs (80% satisfied or very satisfied). They thought computers were easy to use (84% agreed or agreed strongly) and fun to use (80%). However, they were less satisfied with their actual skills (50% satisfied or very satisfied), with the level of satisfaction varying markedly with the type of application. They thought they were good or very good with word processing (90%) and e-mail (80%) but not a statistical package (22%) or the WWW (30%). Their level of knowledge concerning the WWW was not very high in the initial survey: about 40% claimed no knowledge at all; and about 25% could correctly identify "html" from five choices. Only about 10% could correctly identify "URL" or "http" when given five possible choices. Only 4 of 150 students were able to correctly identify both "URL" and "http." They were almost unanimous (98%) that computers were useful for research and writing papers, but were evenly divided on whether the Web was a good source of information for research and writing papers. Forty-seven percent reported that their primary or secondary use of the Web was related to school work (e.g., research for papers).

In the initial survey, the two groups indicated practically identical attitudes and knowledge of computers and the WWW. See Table 1 for reported Web skills.

Table 1. World Wide Web Skills*
*"Please indicate your level of computer skills with respect to: Use of World Wide Web."


Other Class


Good/Very Good




Weak/No Skills/Other








Respondents (N)




Interestingly, there was also very little difference between the 100 first-year students and the 50 others (sophomores, juniors, seniors). Generally, the first-year students were more positive about their skills than were the other students. The only possible exception was ability with a statistical package where 19% of first-year students thought they were good or very good as compared with 26% of the other students (see Table 2). None of the differences was statistically significant even at the .05 level.

Table 2. Statistical Package*
* "Please indicate your level of computer skills with respect to: Data analysis using a statistical package."
First-Year Other Total
Good/Very Good




Weak/No Skills/Other








Respondents (N)




The WebTutor achieved its basic purpose: the overwhelming preponderance of the students in these classes as well as hundreds of students in other classes performed the assigned exercise without coming back to the professor with questions or complaints. In a second follow-up survey, of the 128 students who responded, only 7 of the 72 in the WebTutor assigned class reported that they did not use the WebTutor and 4 of these attributed this to existing Web knowledge (see Table 3). Answers to other questions indicate that at least 3 of the 4 were in fact quite knowledgeable about the WWW. More than 90% of the students reported full or partial use of the tutorial without any class or written instruction in its use. Of the 72 students who took the final exam in the Web assigned course, 69 (96%) satisfactorily completed the exercise.

Table 3. Use of WebTutor in Assigned Class*
* "Have you ever used the WebTutor?"



No, already knew the World Wide Web



No, too busy



No, it was not assigned



Yes, used partially



Yes, used completely






Eight of the 56 students in the other class also reported use of the WebTutor. (Presumably the WebTutor was assigned in another class that they were taking.) Thus a total of 73 of the 128 students reported full or partial use of the tutorial.

Impact of WebTutor. Clear differences in attitudes, knowledge, and reported practices appeared between WebTutor users and non-users in the survey following the assignment. Users were more likely to believe that their WWW skills were good, to agree that the Web was useful for research, to use it for school related work, to agree that it was fun to use, and to correctly identify "URL," "http," and "html" (see Table 4).

Table 4. Impact of WebTutor Use



Used WT

Did Not Use

Please indicate your level of computer skills with respect to: World Wide Web.

Very Good or Good



Please indicate your agreement or disagreement: the World Wide Web is fun to use

Agree Strongly or Agree



Please indicate your agreement or disagreement: the WWW is a good source of information for research & writing papers

Agree Strongly or Agree



What is your primary (or secondary) use of the World Wide Web? (Two questions.)

School Related



"URL" is. [5 choices provided]




"Http" is. [5 choices provided]




"HTML" is. [5 choices provided]








All differences significant at least the .005 level.

Although all of the differences reported in Table 4 between users and non-users are significant, some of the answers with respect to knowledge of the Web are disappointing. In the worst case, only 37% of users could correctly identify "http." However, the level of factual information revealed in Table 4 is probably misleading and reflects the carelessness of the students in completing an ungraded survey. In the Web assigned class the students completed an exam (to be graded) prior to completing the survey. The same three factual questions were asked and the students scored consistently higher. For instance, 60% were able to correctly identify "html." (Although the graded questions more accurately reflect the students' knowledge, they can not be used for purposes of comparison. There is no comparable set of graded questions for the class that was not assigned the WebTutor.)

Differences between users and non-users in all questions relating to the WWW do not carry over into other computer areas. There are no consistent or significant differences between WebTutor users and non-users in: confidence in their computer skills or ability to learn new programs; reported ability with word processor or statistical package; or belief that computers are easy or fun to use. This is not surprising: there is no reason to expect that a single tutorial and exercise would impact attitudes toward computers generally. (These data are not shown since they are simply columns of virtually identical numbers.)

Students were asked several questions to determine their attitudes toward the WebTutor. Students were asked to agree or disagree with the statements: "The WebTutor was fun to use" (41%) and "The WebTutor provided more information than I wanted or needed" (about 45%) The results were somewhat disappointing for the author. These numbers can be compared to the same students' evaluation of the textbook: 38% agreed it was fun, and 28% said it provided too much information. These results, in combination with the comments of the in-service teachers described above, suggest that the tutorial was perhaps too long and certainly not as much fun as the author intended.

The most recent revisions were primarily editorial. The text was carefully reviewed to reduce redundancy and eliminate material not directed to the tutorial's central purpose of creating a competent informed browser. The number of slides was decreased from about 200 to 160--a 20% reduction. Animation and graphics were increased moderately, appreciably increasing the ratio of graphics and animation to text. Additional reduction of the size (in bytes) of the tutorial should result in improved performance on less powerful computers. This most recent version has not yet been evaluated.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The WebTutor suggests that it is possible for even a moderately computer literate professor to create a computer tutorial that achieves its major goal: to make WWW assignments without devoting any class-time to teaching the Web. The in-service teachers were unanimous that the directions were clear. All 18 undergraduate students in the fall of 1995 and 96% of the undergraduate students in the spring of 1996 performed the assigned exercise without any additional Web instruction. Student beliefs and practices concerning serious WWW use as a research tool were positively and significantly impacted.

There are, however, some areas that call for attention. The experience narrated above suggests that there may be difficulties developing a tutorial that students will regard as appropriately informative and as significantly more fun to use than a traditional resource such as a textbook.

In addition to the current editorial revisions, a revised interface (not available at this time) with a more esthetically pleasing look and smaller font size may contribute to achieving more positive evaluations by users. Technology changes quickly and a tutorial can be just as quickly outdated. Fortunately the tutorial's design with its extensive animation and interaction provides a Web-like feel that does not yet appear dated. Again a word of caution: although a moderately computer literate professor can master a single multimedia software package and develop a tutorial suitable for use on the home campus, the development of a tutorial suitable for more wide-spread dissemination may require a team effort. Mastery of a single package does not guarantee an esthetic sense or the ability to develop an installation program. Even for this project, others had to participate. The WebTutor passed the test for current usefulness, but there is a need for vigilance regarding its value for the demands of the future.


Microsoft Corporation. (1996) . An Internet tutorial [On-line]. Available: URL: http://www.home.msn.com/tutorial/default.asp.

Draper, S.W. (1996). Observing, measuring, or evaluating courseware [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/Eval.HE.asp.

Hughes, K. (1994). A guide to Cyberspace. Enterprise Integration Technologies [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.eit.com:80/web/www.guide.

LTDI: Implementing learning technology. Edinburgh: Institute for Computer Based Learning, Heriot-Watt University. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.icbl.hw.ac.uk/ltdi/.

Netscape Corporation. (1995-1996). Netscape Navigator handbook [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://home.netscape.com/eng/mozilla/3.0/handbook/.

(All WWW references were last accessed May 21, 1997, and were working at that time.)

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