Designing and using web pages for science teaching - new roles for the teacher
(Proceedings of the second Euro Education conference, Aalborg, Denmark. Ed. Tom J van Weert.)

 

Georg R Douglas, Bsc., PhD

Hamrahlíð College

Reykjavík, Iceland

 

E-mail: george@rvik.ismennt.is

 

Abstract

Following two years of using the WWW sporadically, the decision was taken to build a departmental web site for earth science teaching which would take into consideration the particular pedagogic needs of the Icelandic high school science student. A web site has been constructed which, through basic design, enables students to access relevant and suitable information resources over a wide range of subjects and topics easily and rapidly, while at the same time performing an instructional role in how to handle both on-line and off-line resources. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to these issues in most high school web sites. Key elements in the design are selection and monitoring by the teacher, task-oriented pages and the use of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. The construction of the web pages and their use in class has highlighted many new roles for the teacher. The intention is to gradually increase the extent to which most teaching tasks are carried out via the web pages, in the belief that they can become an efficient central point for all the earth science curriculum.

Key words: Organisation, flexible learning, pedagogy, design, science

 

Introduction

Following a period of using the WWW in earth science classes in a somewhat incidental fashion, the decision was made to build a properly organised departmental site. Before describing the structure of the pages, some background discussion will help in explaining the thought lying behind their design. As an earth science teacher, I had no doubts as to the value of the Internet and I started using it for up to the minute text information from NASA back in the pre-graphics browser days. Since then, end user access to the Internet has become much easier and the WWW, in particular, has much to offer. Daily events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruption and discoveries in space can be observed in real-time and with stunning reality. It is now possible to access real world data in a way only dreamed of a few years back. The opportunity of having peer and expert contact is also a basic part of science education which is now available to students and their teachers using the Internet. Virtual demonstrations of many kinds can make the teaching of difficult concepts a much easier task than before. As well as Internet access there has been increasing use of our own resources such as image collections, in on-line form. For the first time therefore, it seems possible to properly teach many of the basic concepts of science.

However, as many teachers will know only too well, using the Internet in class can be a frustrating experience. In terms of hardware and facilities, our situation is possibly average for a European state-run college of 800 students - a mixture of pentium and 486 machines in two classrooms, already overbooked for computer courses and other teaching. After using the WWW and observing student on-line practices in earth science classes for about two years, in some cases for up to 50% of the course, a fair idea of their problems and needs had been acquired. It soon became apparent that I would also have to acquire new skills and even redefine my role as a teacher.

Diverse problems

A major problem soon encountered was the shortage of time available for getting useful information off the Web. There is a tendency to blame this on a lack of bandwidth and hardware limitations and while these are certainly irritations, there are many much more serious problems which need to be highlighted and addressed. Prominent among these are the students´ lack of knowledge of the scientific infrastructure and their inability to evaluate information resources. At high school level students do not yet know how or where to search for information resources. Struggling through a "meta index" can be a daunting and time consuming task. A lack of scientific vocabulary and knowledge of how the various Web search engines work, means that students are often unsuccessful in using keyword searches, or worse, they are satisfied but in fact unsuccessful. On top of these problems is the run-away growth of the Internet and the associated information overload. While progress is certainly being made to organise information resources on the WWW, especially by librarians, no one is really going to do this specifically for the student, in sufficient detail and at the right level, except the teacher. It is very surprising therefore, that a recent quality evaluation survey conducted on science teaching web sites (1) revealed that high school web sites, have largely ignored the issue of organising information resources and teaching their students how to use them. The concentration so far has rather been on using the Web for student publishing and interschool on-line projects.

Difficulty in accepting regular on-line classroom sessions as a viable teaching method is not an age-linked problem and some of the college students have proved to be quite conservative in this regard. Help must be provided to make the advantages immediately obvious and the idea attractive. On the other hand, computer illiteracy is generally not a problem and students are very quick to learn the computing aspects. A related problem is that most students tend to separate the on-line and book-based learning with the computer playing the peripheral role. This is unfortunate and some way must be found of integrating the two.

Finally, a different kind of problem which emerged while supervising students during WWW sessions is that the teacher doesn´t have an on-line presence. If, as everything suggests, the classroom really is moving on to the Net, then the teacher should surely move with it. Looking over the student´s shoulder during computer sessions just isn´t sufficient participation. As a teacher, I regard it as essential to become directly involved and maintain visibility.

Practical solutions

While the problems mentioned are all major, they can be greatly alleviated and even satisfactorily solved through careful departmentally-based web page design where the teacher is also the web author. The web pages thus become the teacher´s own expanding virtual classroom where resources can be selected and filtered and the student steered and instructed. The teacher is highly visible through the customised nature of the pages, the annotations which accompany resource links and provision of local information resources of various kinds. Most important of all is that through the GEO. earth science site a very flexible learning environment has been created which is of practical use either during a brief 40 minute study period or when the student has time to surf more widely. The student can find what he or she is looking for and learns how best to use the information.

The web site was originally concieved as a practical way of making the Internet really work in class, mainly through pages which provided selected and annotated links to earth science sites. As time has passed the site has also grown to become a platform for presenting local resources as well as on-line teaching and student-teacher projects.

From the outset, the GEO. earth science web site was intended to be a gateway to the Internet specifically built for the student. Through its basic organisational design it not only greatly speeds up the student´s resource searching, but also provides instruction and guidance on how to use the resources.

Basic design and resource organisation

The student can enter the web site in one of several ways depending on what he or she intends to do and on how much time is available. The points of entry include "WWW resources" which leads to a resource starting point of highly organised, classified and annotated links. An "Icelandic links" entry point leads to catalogued Icelandic earth science resources organised in a similar way (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1

The Icelandic pages are also intended to be an introduction and enticement to non- college visitors. With this end in view, they include an interactive geology map of the country which takes the viewer to various on-line virtual reality field trips, some of which have been created during the actual field trip. It is hoped that peer contact at home and abroad can be stimulated through these pages, while they also provide our own students with an illustrated record of their course field trips which can be integrated with other course work and on-line resources in a convenient way.

Another entry point is via Hamrahlið College Earth Science which leads to pages organised by course, assignments and projects, as well as providing local resources such as image collections and the virtual field trips.

A final important entry point is via a "Dynamic Earth and news" button which leads directly to classified sections with a high news content as well as realtime data pertaining to earth science. Use of this makes it possible for the student to easily extract useful information on topics such as seismic activity and space probe discoveries within a single class period. An example of an application is a one class session used in the entry course in earth science at the college. During the session the students follow instructions on a simple web page where links take them to near-realtime resources about seismic activity. This is a high priority issue in Iceland, which is situated on an active oceanic ridge. They start off with a simple world distribution map, followed by more detailed information on particular earthquakes and finally study the weeks´s seismic events in Iceland. The entire session can be satisfactorily completed within 40 minutes even on a 14,440 bps connection.

All the links are classified by the Dewey Decimal Classification System while the annotations are aimed directly at the student and sometimes include a suggestion as to how the resource may be applied. There are strong internal cross links between all the pages. This ensures that the student can move around easily without getting lost. Equally important is that such internal links provide an instructional role on using the pages themselves. As an example, under a particular course assignment in the College curriculum pages, a link may be provided say to a particular NASA server. Initial selection of the link will however first take the student to the appropriate listing in the classified resources section of the GEO. pages. There a descriptive annotation from the teacher can be read before the decision is actually made to select the link, while related link descriptions can be examined at the same time. Since the internal links are fast, the overall result is to greatly reduce unecessary browsing by the student, while at the same time an appreciation of the kind of information available is gained, from its placing in the GEO. oganisational scheme.

Using the Dewey Decimal Classification system for web resources

Although Melvil Dewey certainly didn´t have the Internet in mind when he published his well known library classification scheme in 1876, his scheme seems to suit it admirably and it is a widely used and familiar system to most high school students. From a pedagogic point of view it has the advantage of encouraging interdisciplinary learning, for topics can appear in several different classes depending on their context. From the web site author´s point of view it enables very easy maintenance, little thought being required to place new resources in their appropriate class.

FIGURE 2

 

In keeping with current trends in teaching, a task-oriented classification scheme for resources has also been employed in the GEO. pages (Figure 1), superimposed on the basic Dewey scheme. The student is thus provided with a very direct route to specific types of information. Catered for at present are images-only links, news, software, realtime, direct contact links, global links and virtual reality, the Dewey system being used within each group as a common thread. Grouping resources in this way not only saves the student time, but also encourages him or her and indeed the teacher, to decide early on, how they will be used. A recent example of the clarity and convenience of such divisions was provided by the impending eruption of Etna, Italy in February. Entry course students were able to rapidly find and access a scientific eruption warning, general news coverage, general in-depth treatment of the volcano and finally a real time image updated at 30 second intervals. Lively and productive discussion followed very easily.

Through the "specialised links" the teacher also has the opportunity to develop personal themes and add new groups in the future, or for example to provide individual resource packages for students with varying interests or abilities.

Of course it is essential to provide the option of free browsing when time is available. After all, one of the great attractions of the Internet is the facility of learning in several directions while following a single general theme. While the use of the Dewey system allows the inclusion of web pages on quite specific topics, it can equally well cater for the large meta-type of resource index. However, to avoid unecessary duplication of information resource links, these are normally restricted to one or two, such as the World Wide Virtual Library (W3C World Wide Web Consortium)(2) or the BUBL(3) indices which ultimately provide a gateway to most of the better known reliable information resources.

The organisational scheme steers the user first and foremost to classified subject tree resources, for by so doing he or she learns much about the subject and how to use resources. However, as a second stage in resource seeking, special search pages are also provided for a variety of key word search engines and on-line data bases which also give the student the chance of turning up further information and new resources. Again, classroom time is saved by routing links to specific science sections of search engines or even to some subject orientated on-line data bases. An attempt is also being made to build search pages which enable the student to quickly find images, science news goups, news agencies specialising in science news and in other specific fields.

The GEO. pages don´t restrict the teacher to just on-line resources. One choice is a "library and book resources" section which provides links to on-line libraries at home and abroad via the WWW and Telnet as well as to book sources and to the college´s own library and journal resources, thus integrating the two worlds in which we work today. From the classified College book pages the student can jump directly to the corresponding Dewey class in the on-line resource pages to see if related material is available.

Other activities and future development

The Web can be used for many other activities than resource searching, of course. As the work progressed, it became clear that there were advantages to be had by integrating with local resources, such as image collections. The curriculum section in particular provides plenty of scope for other activities. These include the provision of virtual field trips which are often on-line versions of real field trips conducted by students and staff. They are a useful means for the student to recall important features of the trip in a more permanent way, while for the teacher they provide a useful step-off point for further teaching or for assessment purposes through on-line assignments.

Student web publishing is catered for via a link on the curriculum pages to the student showcase pages. This represents a departure from the frequent practice of putting student projects up front. Indeed student pages are the departmental pages of some high schools. The intention is not to downgrade the student work in any way, but rather to put it in perspective. The GEO. web site is intended to teach and there must be a clear distinction between original information resources and student work. So far web authorship is not regarded as one of the skills required by students in the earth science courses at Hamrahlíð College, so that student publishing is very much coincidental with computer knowledge. It is hoped to increase this in the future.

Finally, the pages are being increasingly used to provide course assignments on-line, where the student is directed internally to suitable parts of the GEO. classified resources section via. hyperlinks, thus building familiarity with the system. Although students do not generally have E-mail accounts, the use of forms enables some assignment work to be completed on-line.

New teacher roles

Perhaps not all teachers would be happy with the idea of having to become web authors, but new web authoring programmes are rapidly reducing this skill to the level of word processing. However, failure to become involved with this basic skill could have far reaching consequences for the average teacher. Leaving the student to roam the web on his own may mean handing over traditional teacher tasks and responsibilities to others, who may not have the interests of the students at heart to the same extent. Alternatively, getting involved in web authoring opens up new opportunities for both teacher and student to work together both in the traditional manner and in ways not previously possible.

Among the traditional teacher roles experienced in writing, maintaining and using the GEO. web pages are the gathering of information resources and explaining to the student how to use them. Only the environment is new. In many other activities also, the emphasis has merely shifted, usually for the better. There is more outward contact with peers and the real world, there is more and better raw data for the student to use, but the basic teacher tasks are the same as they were. Many of these opportunities have always been there, but the Internet encourages teachers to implement them for the first time. One such example concerns a recent Netdays 97 project in which the college took part, where one of the many new dimensions offered by web publishing was explored. The teacher provided the basic framework and factual data for a virtual field trip, while the students provided text comments directly aimed at their counterparts in other European countries. The result was thus a joint teacher-student production, where reliable local resources were added to the web site, the student satisfied a creative need and some outside contact was established.

 

Among the really new challenges which have been experienced since the start of the project are those of selecting the information resources from an ever increasing supply and keeping up with the development of organisational schemes. In this respect teachers are no better or worse off than other professionals and if anything, are generally better prepared. After all, a major part of teaching up until now has been providing students with information. Now the emphasis has moved to selecting it.

As a bonus, some amazing new opportunities are presented. No longer bound by the limits of a particular textbook, which may have been based on the demands of a educational system different to his own, the teacher can now weave his own 3-dimensional learning packages by selecting and filtering information resources suited to a variety of particular needs. An example of this in the GEO. site is provided by the "specialised resources" section mentioned earlier, which, in addition to "images only" and other task related resources, includes "option resource packages" for individual students. In a broad multi-subject discipline such as earth science, there is plenty of scope to give individual students some freedom of choice in exactly what they learn. Those heading for biology-based higher education can carry out projects using the life science module, while those with a physics bent can concentrate on a completely different package. These option packages can thus form part of a common earth science course for science students and the student feels that he is really furthering his knowledge in the field of his choice. What makes it possible, of course, is the almost unlimited range of WWW resources from which to choose, the relative ease of putting together such resources on web pages and the one-to-one nature of the web environment.

Maintaining large web pages of this type is not all plain sailing. Constantly changing technical advances also demand that the teacher web author keeps up with what is going on and provides the student with the information. Good page design should not only provide help on current browsers, plug-ins and suchlike, but should constantly be preparing the student for what is to come next. The student needs support in accepting change as the norm.

Making the web site the central point

The most logical way of integrating traditional student activities and on-line tasks would seem to be to make the web pages the central organisational point, while still maintaining a high profile and regard for the off-line resources. Computers and networking, in particular, seem to work best when as much as possible is carried out on-line. There sometimes seems to be a tendency to regard the Web as being a threat to books and book learning. A natural connection has been achieved in the journals section of the GEO. pages by providing Dewey classified links to both on-line versions of well known science journals as well as to the corresponding sections of the College library pages and journals catalogued there. In addition a personally written FAQ encourages students to consider the issue of when it is best to use books and when to use the Internet in his or her studies.

Of course students can not be expected to endlessly increase computer time in all their existing book-based courses. It must be balanced somewhere else. Ideally the amount of stand-up teaching time should be reduced and the tasks of web authoring, maintainence and resources selection and preparation should come in its place. Direct student-teacher contact is a necessary element of the learning process, but probably over rated, at least in science subjects. My experience has been that better and more useful contact with individual students is often possible through E-mail. Furthermore, more profitable teacher-student discussions are likely to take place when pure information transfer is no longer a major teacher occupation.

Conclusion

The GEO. web site does work. The student can access information resources and raw data in realistic times and in an understandable form. Along the way he or she learns about the infrastructure of the subject and about how to go about finding and using information. The pages provide a common ground where students and the teacher come together and interface with the Internet. The teacher has good control over quality and use of information resources and can readily combine their use with most other teaching tasks in the same on-line environment.

Unfortunately, even though such a web site solves many practical problems of using and dealing with the information overload, there is still some way to go in properly implementing their regular use. For on-line teaching of this type to get going really means a complete reorganisation of the school system and a genuine acceptance of the value of the new technology by governing authorities. The limited experience gained so far of using the GEO. pages suggests that classroom workload could be usefully divided into computer time, library and other off-line resource time and group tutorial sessions of various kinds. Behind this, of course, lies a major increase in teacher preparation time (compared with book-based teaching), including web page maintenance. Also, this can probably not be satisfactorily done without increased computer access both in class and even at home and the latter issue raises ethical questions such as who can afford the necessary costs involved.

References

1. Douglas, G.R Designing a web site for high school geoscience teaching in Iceland. In Geosciences & Computers, Special issue on teaching. To be published.

2. http://vlib.stanford.edu/Overview2.html

3. http://www.bubl.bath.ac.uk/BUBL/

 

Figure Captions

Figure 1. Schematic diagram showing the main units of the GEO. web site. Each layer comprises many separate web pages. Examples of content are shown on the various layers, while the main functions served by each layer are shown to the right.

Figure 2. Example of a typical Dewey classified resource page, showing links and their student orientated annotations, as well as navigation buttons to further options.