Web pages for high school science teaching - the teacher's role - the GEO. Earth & Planetary Science web site at Hamrahlíð College, Iceland

 

[1838 Words, estimated reading time: 13 minutes, Posted 9 October

1997]

 

Georg R Douglas

Hamrahlíð College Reykjavík, Iceland

george@rvik.ismennt.is

 

Having used the WWW to some extent in most earth science courses at

Hamrahlíð College for the past two years, the many opportunities it offers

science teaching have become obvious. But the many problems involved

in making it work satisfactorily had also produced more than one

frustrating classroom session. There is a natural tendency to blame low

bandwidth and slow hardware and these certainly put some restrictions on

what it is possible to get out of the Web in practical terms. A far greater

problem encountered, however, was the student's lack of knowledge of the

scientific infrastructure. At high school level students do not yet know how

or where to search for information resources. Most are taking their first

serious steps in the world of libraries, books and scientific journals and for

them, struggling through a meta index can be a daunting and time

consuming task. Another problem seldom mentioned in discussions of the

Internet revolution in teaching, is that the grass roots teacher doesn't

really 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.

 

These are major problems, but they can be greatly alleviated and even

satisfactorily solved through careful departmentally-based web page

design, where the teacher is himself 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. A web site of this type has been

under construction by the author for about a year and first experiences of

using it are starting to emerge.

 

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. The site also functions as a student web publishing outlet and

as a teaching platform which it is hoped will constantly develop to provide

a complete and flexible teaching environment for all the earth science

courses in the College.

Basic design

 

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 highly organised,

classified and annotated links and Icelandic links which catalogues all

Icelandic earth science resources in a similar way. The latter pages are

also intended as an introduction and enticement to visitors to the site, who

may be seeking peer contact. 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. Another 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 40 minute class

period. A final 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 virtual field trips.

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. Since the internal links are fast, the overall result is to greatly reduce

unecessary browsing by the student.

Classifying information resources using a reworked 100 year old

system

 

Melvil Dewey certainly didn't have the Internet in mind when he published

his well known library classification scheme in 1876. Nevertheless 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 cross curricular 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

effort being required to insert new resources in their appropriate class.

In keeping with current trends in teaching, a task-oriented classification

scheme for resources has also been employed in the GEO. pages,

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 to decide early on,

how they will be used. The teacher also has the opportunity here to

develop personal themes and add new groups in the future.

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 these are normally restricted to one or two, such

as the World Wide Virtual Library or the BUBL indices which ultimately

provide a gateway to most of the better known reliable information

resources. Special search pages are provided for a varity 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 mounting links to specific science sections of

search engines rather than to the front page. An attempt is also being

made to build up collections of search pages which specialise in images,

news goups, news agencies 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 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 on the GEO. pages

 

On-line teaching is not only about resource searching of course. The

curriculum section in particular provides plenty of opportunity 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. As part of the Netd@ys project an account is being provided

of such a virtual field trip in the making. A joint option course of the Earth

science and History departments at the College concerns the effects

volcanic eruptions have had on life and settlement in Iceland. A central

part of the course involves three major field trips to important eruption sites

in the country - Laki (1783), Vestmannaeyjar (1973) and Hekla (many

historic eruptions). The intention is to provide an interactive on-line route

log and visual account of the trips, which will remain as a source of

information to the students, as well as enabling the students themselves

to express their feelings and impressions. Since we have on the course at

the moment some European exchange students it is also hoped to

introduce a small cross-European element and even some further contact

outside Iceland once the pages are up and running. Peer contact of this

kind is not only of cultural value, but is one of the essential features of

basic science.

Where do we go from here?

 

Luckily, there is no more chance of producing a final version web site for

teaching, than there ever was of producing the perfect classroom

environment. The very nature of the Internet demands constant change

and development, both of which need to be incorporated into the web page

design. In the GEO. pages this has been partly provided for by small

active I buttons which lead to help pages where needed. This is very much

on a need to know basis, for experience has shown that most students do

not want to spend much time wading through technical descriptions. An

attempt is also made to prepare the student for what is around the corner,

whether it be a new browser type or a new way of presenting the

information resources. Increasingly the successful teacher will surely have

to keep up with developments on resource organisation and handling, as

well as with the computing aspects of teaching.

The intention is to use the GEO. pages increasingly in all earth science

courses at the College, as far as financial constraints and College policy

will allow, eventually making them the central point. That stage should

hopefully be accompanied by a reduction in the amount of stand-up

teaching and a corresponding increase in more useful student-teacher

activities. Initial reaction to using the GEO. pages suggests that students

are no less conservative than many of their teachers as regards the

introduction of such ideas. However, they are quick to learn and grasp the

technology and and there is every encouragement to continue at full

speed. The Internet offers for the first time, the oppportunity of really

properly introducing students to many of the fundamental principles of

science and the sooner we get involved the better for all of us.

 

 

 

References

 

GEO. Earth and Planetary Science for high school

 

http://www.ismennt.is/vefir/earth/

 

Douglas G R., Designing a web site for high school geoscience teaching

in Iceland. Computers & Geosciences, special issue on teaching, to be

published. Accepted for publication.