Using HTML for Organizing Student Projects Through the Internet

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Over the past five years education has been energized by a steady increase in that extraordinary thing called the Internet. In the past two years, the World Wide Web, a colorful subset of the Internet, has provided further testimony to the efforts of educators worldwide to use the Internet as a tool for learning.

The Web is especially fertile ground for teachers who wish to use electronic documents to enrich their courses. Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the language of Web documents, is a standard for marking text so that it can be displayed by different Web browsers running on a wide array of computers. Most of us can remember the dot commands used by early word processors; HTML works something like that, but its potential g'es far beyond. Most teachers have used hypertext at one time or another, such as HyperCard on the Mac. They may have even written hypertext scripts for their courses. The system described in this article takes the hypertext idea a step further by getting the student active in the process. Through HTML and the Internet, hypertext has taken on a new role as a facilitator of navigation on the Web and as a tool for enhancing communication.

Our Experience and Our System

This article describes our experiences at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in using the Internet and HTML to create an interactive teaching environment. It includes the Internet exploration methods faculty use and our hypertext design strategy for student projects. HTML's hypertext features enable students to link Internet information to their projects and papers, making them "living" documents wired with hypertext buttons.

The system we describe in this article was designed to do several things. First, it serves as a mechanism for improving communication between faculty and students. Second, it gives students control over the structure and content of what they present to the outside world via the Internet. Thus, students become teachers themselves, serving as knowledge providers to all who access their Web pages. The student author will never know all who have seen their document or what other applications of its ideas may have been generated by readers. By linking their projects and papers to the Web, students make their work a part of the Web itself -- to live after their course or academic program is over. Indeed, the Web is stocked with useful information that was created by programmers or students who posted the material while they were enrolled at various universities.

Third, the hypertext system was designed to introduce students to the Internet in a focused, purposeful way, in the context of management information and database management systems courses. Other disciplines are also using these methods effectively at NSU -- in educational systems and instructional design, for example.

Fourth, the system was designed to provide a forum for sharing ideas and for synergy. The features of HTML enable a student to focus others' attention on important aspects of their documents. As students exchange materials about their projects and papers with other students in the course, expectations are that learning will be enhanced; the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. This sharing extends beyond the boundaries of the course since other students and faculty within NSU's School of Computer and Information Sciences can view the final projects, as can the whole external audience on the Web. The Web-based hypertext system enables one student's project to become a training opportunity for other students and even for people outside the immediate course. Finally, the total of all class projects form a body of knowledge about the subject that can serve as a national resource.

Background on NSU's Online Programs

The Web page posting of student projects in courses must be understood in a context of the culture of distance education and online programs at NSU. Nova launched its first distance education doctoral programs in 1972, soon thereafter enrolling over 2,000 students in over 30 states. Delivery format for these early programs was in "clusters" and professors were flown in to give lectures on weekends. The only technologies used then were planes, phones and the U.S. Postal Service. These programs still operate today, but many have added online technologies such as e-mail for communication, compressed video for delivering lectures, online library services, audio bridging and fax machines.

In 1983, NSU launched its first online program with the advent of the Doctor of Arts in Information Science program (DAIS). It served a wide range of professionals, but most students enrolled in the DAIS worked in library settings around the globe. Other online programs soon followed at the masters and doctoral level in computer education, information systems, and computer science.

In 1995, the online programs in NSU's School of Computer and Information Sciences enrolled over 700 students in all 50 states and several foreign countries and the cluster programs maintain an enrollment of over 5,000 from undergraduate through doctorate level.

Types of activities in NSU's online courses include sessions in our Electronic ClassRoom, submission of assignments by uploading to expert systems, computer conferences, e-mail for Q&A exchanges, and exploration on the Web. Students receive hard copy materials that include a course syllabus or study guide, class assignments, project guidelines and bibliographies. The Electronic ClassRoom (ECR) is used for real-time sessions where the following things are accomplished: mini lectures by the instructor, questions about course material from students, presentations of student analyses of cases, and presentation of course projects by students.

Methods and Criteria for Projects

Before students can launch their projects on the Internet, they learn first how to build the environment by following a set of rules given by the teacher. Many of these tools are already in the UNIX system and within the HTML language. Students then organize materials for their projects by outlining the topic, writing brief paragraphs to describe the project and linking to external information resources. These resources can be from any location on the Web that has a URL address, or any gopher or ftp site.

The foundation that makes this possible rests on four pillars: the online interactive teaching environment that resides on a local server within NSU that serves as the teacher/student interface; the Internet; a set of tools for navigating and viewing; and an array of existing structures such as Web pages, gophers and Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS). Each of these dimensions will be discussed in the following sections, with extensive focus on the teaching environment -- the most significant "internal" aspect of the system.

Interactive Teaching Environment

At NSU, the teaching environment is a variant of the UNIX operating system called ULTRIX. Students have accounts on this machine and can access their files and programs various ways: through Tymnet, direct dialup over regular phone lines and 14.4 modems, Telnet or ftp over the Internet, or from an on-campus Ethernet connection. Students complete their online work using the tools of UNIX, and they do work off-line using a personal computer with its word processor and other utilities. Students work extensively at home with word processors preparing assignments and projects for transmission online.

This section presents nine criteria we adopted to design an interactive teaching environment on the Internet. The nine criteria are below, followed by a section explaining each:

  1. Preparing instructional materials
  2. Monitoring progress via student projects
  3. Raising teacher's level of awareness of student progress
  4. Amount of support for learning: replication-assisted
  5. Level of communication: posting class questions/answers sent via e-mail
  6. Timeliness of class involvement
  7. Assessment of student readiness for class participation: posting new ideas
  8. Real-time interactive class sessions: the Electronic ClassRoom
  9. Evaluation of student assignments: the electronic student.

Preparing Instructional Materials

The first criterion for a high-quality teaching environment is for the teacher to prepare a set of instructional materials in the form of a course syllabus (outline). The course syllabus serves as a master plan for delivering a course. While authoring languages of the past required the teacher to be a programmer (remember C-Pilot?), the success of the Internet has brought a wealth of user-friendly interfaces, including browsers (Lynx, text-only; Mosaic, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer, graphical) and HTML editors. The structure of a typical course is presented below in two phases, static and dynamic. The example uses Lynx rather than a graphical browser to make the structure of the actual HTML files explicit. The first phase corresponds to the plan of the course. It is "static" in the sense that it remains the same for the entire course. Some of the static items that form the course plan include course title, class schedule, course objectives, textbooks, grading strategy, weekly assignments and course tutorials. This phase is usually developed and distributed to students before class starts.

Certain teaching activities are "dynamic" in the sense that they evolve during a course.

The second phase corresponds to teaching activities. It is "dynamic" in the sense that it evolves during a course. Some "dynamic" items include student projects, student questions and teacher answers, "message of the day," and Electronic ClassRoom sessions. HTML, with its simple format for representing and linking documents, is the ideal mechanism to prepare the plan of a course. Since this mechanism is so important for an understanding of how a course can be constructed in hypertext, we provide below explanations of this feature.

As an example, we have included below a link to a second document that will contain the structure of the course. A link has this structure: <a href="file_name">named_anchor</a> The link starts with the keywords: <a href= followed, within quotes, by the document "file_name" followed by the symbol: > followed by the document: named_anchor followed by the keyword: </a>. (Note: All HTML documents use the extension: html.)

Assuming we want to insert the anchor_name "plan of a course" to a document stored in file "plan.html" we would simply encode our link as <a href="plan.html">plan of a course</a>. Assuming we called the file containing this document "main.html"-- to reflect the fact that it will be used as our main menu page -- we can now use the following Lynx command lynx main.html to display this document on our screen. (This assumes use of an ASCII text-based environment and not a graphical Web browser; students using Mosaic or Netscape Navigator would use the appropriate commands for those browsers). The following words: "plan of a course" will be highlighted, and if we click on these words, the corresponding document, stored in file "plan.html," will be displayed onscreen.

Hypertext documents are constructed, like houses made of playing cards, from simple items.

Hypertext documents are constructed, like houses made of playing cards, from simple items: A menu line item starts with the keyword: <li>. A menu item is made of one or several menu line items, starts with the keyword <menu>, and is terminated with </menu>. To use boldface characters, start the sentence with <b> and terminate it with </b>. The following example consists of a menu with two line items and a header, "course outline." Assume this HTML document is stored in a file called: "main.html." FILE: main.html </b>COURSE OUTLINE</b> <menu> <h><a href="plan.html">plan of a course</a> <h><a href="teach.html">teaching activities</a> </menu> To access the hypertext document shown above, simply use the command: lynx main.html. As a result, the following menu, with two highlighted entries, is displayed:

COURSE OUTLINE
plan of a course
teaching activities

Navigating through our course plan, like navigating the Internet, becomes simple.

2. Monitoring Progress: Student Projects
The second criterion for a quality teaching environment is a mechanism that allows the teacher to monitor student progress. Past computer-based learning settings allowed students to communicate with the teacher only via e-mail. This mode, although a great improvement over U.S. mail, is still far from the experience of a face-to-face class environment. What is missing in e-mail is the feeling on the part of the student of being part of a group.

HTML documents, and its gateways to the Internet, on the other hand, offer the opportunity to do the following:

  • A teacher prepares a course plan, including daily or weekly assignments taking the form of projects.
  • Students work on their projects, posting them in their own space in the online environment on a daily or weekly basis.
  • HTML allows the teacher (and all students in class) to review the students' projects, in real time, through a built-in mechanism of document representation and linking.
  • All students in class follow exchanges between the teacher and their classmates.

The next section describes how this scenario was actually implemented in a hypertext environment.

Computer-based awareness has its own rules.

3: Raise Teacher's Awareness
The third criterion is the teacher's level of awareness of his/her students' progress. Such awareness is automatically achieved in the face-to-face scheduled class environment. In an online environment, the rules for interaction are somewhat different. Computer-based awareness has its own rules. For instance, teaching just through e-mail means a lot of waiting; waiting brings frustration, and frustration has a tendency to lower the quality of teaching.

Hypertext, when combined with rules and conventions adhered to by all, can help overcome this by providing a vehicle for increasing teacher awareness. To do this, both teacher and students follow rules:
RULE #1: Build a standard directory structure (student)
All students are asked to post their class projects in a sub-directory labeled using their course prefix and number. In the following example, we consider a masters' level course on the structure of computer information systems, called MCIS620. Each student is expected to create a sub-directory in his/her user account, using UNIX commands: mkdir MCIS620 (to create directory named MCIS620) and then chmod 755 MCIS620 (to access it).

RULE #2: Create a personal home page (student)
Students then create a home page menu, called "main.html." It is not the name that is important, obviously, but the fact that all students are expected to use the same naming convention. A student's home page menu, similar to the table of contents of a book, lists all the work done by that student for each course.

RULE #3: Build the student network (teacher)
It then becomes a straightforward exercise for the teacher to create a student class list. First the home page of each student is found via UNIX's finger command. Then the complete path of the student home page menu is found.

4. Amount of Support for Learning
The hypertext environment is no different from any other technological resource. Students and teachers should be well trained in the art of using hypertext, and learn all of its important features. A key feature is the facility to replicate menus and documents, and modify them to suit students' needs.

5. Posting Q&As Via E-Mail
Computer-based communication has traditionally been by e-mail, providing a two-way communication link between teachers and students. Although it is possible to copy the whole class on all communications, experience has shown that this is inefficient. Other methods are preferable. Hypertext, when combined with e-mail, provides a solution, as illustrated:

  • A student sends a question via e-mail.
  • The teacher answers via e-mail, posting both the question and his/her answer.
  • All classmates have access to all posted question and answer communications.

6. Timeliness of Class Involvement
The sixth criterion is the timeliness of class participation. In a face-to-face environment, students are required to attend class and participate every time the class meets. In an online environment, such class requirements can be emulated as follows:

  • Posting all assignments;
  • Timeliness of postings;
  • Student attendance at the Electronic ClassRoom sessions.

If some students post their assignments several weeks after other students, the class will be denied the opportunity to access that work and the opportunities for synergy and sharing are lessened. We can, alternatively, say that the highly motivated student will generally post his or her work early, and this could result in less original thinking on the part of other students. This situation can be avoided to some extent by requiring all students to post their work within one or two weeks of the planned schedule.

7. Assessing Student Readiness: Posting New Ideas
The seventh criterion is related to students' readiness for class participation. In a face-to-face classroom environment, class begins when the teacher and most students have arrived. In an online environment, students come to class when they log-in to the main server. Hypertext, when combined with log-in features, can offer a solution.

In the following example, students are required to add, as the last line of their UNIX ".login" file, a command that gives them access to the teacher's "message-of-the-day." We have implemented the "message-of-the-day" mechanism as a two-level menu to take into account that some students may take several classes. The first menu, in our example, contains the following five courses:

MASTER'S COURSES
MCIS620...last updated 2/15/95
MCTE610...last updated 2/15/95
MMIS621...last updated 2/15/95
MMIS610...last updated 2/15/95
MCIS621...last updated 2/15/95

The next menu lists each "message-of-the-day" sorted by date, starting with the most recent message:

MESSAGE OF THE DAY
Tues Jan 31 LYNX RECOMMENDATIONS
Sat Feb 04 ECR REMINDER
Wed Feb 15 PROJECT REVIEW IN PROGRESS

The purpose of the "message-of-the-day" is for teachers to post new ideas to motivate the class. It will have achieved its goal if a teacher can quickly present his or her ideas to the class without constraint of time of day or location. If the process is long and drawn out, both teacher and students will become less vocal and communication may suffer.

8. The Electronic ClassRoom (ECR)
The eighth criterion is concerned with real-time interactive class activities. Nova Southeastern University uses a special software program called the Electronic ClassRoom (ECR), that has been described in an earlier issue of T.H.E. Journal.[1] The two features of ECR that play an important role in our online teaching activities are: A meeting place, bringing the class together on a regular basis, and recordings that are posted and read via Lynx or Mosaic.

9. Evaluating Student Assignments
The final criterion for a high-quality teaching environment concerns accurate evaluation of students' work. Nova uses an expert system to manage the faculty/student online environment. This system is called the Electronic Student / Electronic Teacher (ES/ET) and is the means for storing and tracking students' work in any online course. Two ES/ET abilities have played an important role in our online teaching activities: as an archival system for all assignments requiring a grade; and as an effective environment to allow a teacher to review and grade posted assignments. Our ES/ET software is a systematic mechanism for evaluation that removes, to a large extent, the risk that student assignments will be lost or that a teacher will forget to evaluate an assignment or project. Graded assignments are automatically compressed and stored, and a tracking mechanism provides teachers with a composite picture of any student's work or the work of an entire class.

Our Set of Tools

The set of tools used by NSU teachers and students in creating Web environments in their courses consists of several existing programs that run under UNIX: Lynx (an ASCII browser), text editors, HTML editors, UNIX shell scripts and a hierarchical directory structure. Other UNIX tools (such as the vi editor, pico, emacs, etc.) are blended with a set of microcomputer software tools to form a seamless environment for student projects. PC tools include HTML editors such as HTML Assistant, VT100 terminal emulation software and file transfer software such as Kermit. These enable the student to format text for use with the Web and transfer files to the UNIX host. Of course, new HTML editors for DOS/Windows PCs and for Macs continue to debut; Microsoft is now bundling an HTML conversion feature in Word, as is Corel for WordPerfect and Lotus for Ami Pro.

An essential tool for designing the project environment described in this article is Lynx. Lynx, a text browser for the Web, works with HTML in both UNIX and VMS. Lynx can display hypertext links in highlighted form. One of the most useful features of Lynx is that it works with ASCII terminals using VT100 emulation, as well as any terminal emulation package such as Kermit.

At NSU, the Lynx environment has been enhanced to give students and teachers hypertext access to research gateways and commonly used utility programs. By pressing a single key, students gain instant access to an index page, which contains links to other hypertext systems, such as the NSU Electronic Library, the Campus-Wide Information System (CWIS) and Inter-Links Internet Navigator. Also present are links to electronic mail, USENET news, file management services, interactive communication tools and even the telephone directory. The index page provides the student an easy way to jump out of the current activity, access these services and then jump back in without getting lost in the Web.

In NSU's enhanced Lynx environment, by pressing a single key, students instantly access an index page, which contains links to other hypertext systems.

Types of resources that can be accessed by Lynx are HTTP-- for documents delivered by a local or remote server; TELNET -- for interactive log-in service on a remote computer; WAIS -- for sending search criteria to a WAIS server; gopher -- for accessing a remote gopher server; FTP -- for accessing a remote ftp site and getting or sending files; MAILTO -- for sending electronic mail; and NEWS -- for accessing a USENET news server. In addition to these resources , the lynxexec resource type allows execution of programs residing on the local computer while retaining the identity of the student accessing the link. Other specialty links have been incorporated to allow for hypertext documents generated on the fly and for self-modifying documents.

Existing Structures on the 'Net

The content of servers linked to the Internet is a storehouse of knowledge that is literally "pulled into" student projects to highlight certain points or to provide additional information for the viewer. The utilities that make this knowledge accessible to an HTML link have been staples of the Internet for years. They include gophers, with their search tools such as VERONICA; ftp sites, searchable with ARCHIE; Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS); library catalogs; and numerous Web pages.

HTML is the engine that makes the links possible. Many research resources available to students are delivered by an HTTP server that runs specialized programs to produce and return results based on a student's input. For example, the NSU Inter-Links Internet Navigator provides many ways for students to search for any topic in the system and receive results as a hypertext document. The results will often point students to other Web sites that contain more information as well. The background programs that provide these search capabilities are C programs, Perl scripts and WAIS indexes.

Problems but Promising

Interfacing student projects to the external world of the Internet has its problems. Getting a group of students ready to pursue HTML projects can be very demanding on a teacher. The process requires many rules that each student must follow. Rules are necessary in order to make the "integrated" set of projects work as a whole. Also, some things to which students try to link will change over time as modifications occur continually. Trying to access a "dead" link, users get an error message saying the document is unavailable. This is frustrating and may cause one to avoid future projects in this environment. Things never stay the same on the Internet or the Web. Change is a given. Significant changes happen almost monthly -- in Web browsers, HTML editors and Internet access providers. All of these tools will make Web work for teachers and students both easier and much more fun.

Readers can learn more about lynx by going to the home page at the University of Kansas, its birthplace (http://www.cc.ukans.edu/about_lynx/about_lynx.html). Lynx was designed by a team at the university. The latest release of lynx (2.5) is located at NYU.

John Scigliano, Vice President for Computer & Information Technology, is a Professor of Information Systems at Nova Southeastern University. He received a doctorate from the University of Florida in Higher Education with an interdisciplinary cognate in Industrial Engineering and in Management. Scigliano has served on the faculties of the University of Georgia, Kent State University and Broward Community College. E-mail: scigl@scis.nova.edu

Jacques Levin, a Professor of Computer Science at Nova Southeastern University, served on the research staffs at the University of California, San Diego and at Burroughs Corp. before coming to NSU in 1983. His doctorate is in Physics from the University of Grenoble, France.

Gregory Horne, Manager of Academic Computing at Nova Southeastern University, has a bachelor's of science degree in Computer Science from NSU and has worked on the Academic Computing staff of Broward Community College.

References:
1. Mizell, Al P. & Carl, Diana R. (May 1994), "Inter-Institution Cooperation in Distance Learning," T.H.E. Journal, 21(10), pp. 91-93.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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