New Products Transform Internet Into Powerful Teaching Tools
Whether in downtown Los Angeles or rural Nebraska, teachers and students returning to classrooms this fall most likely will have one thing in common: the Internet, a global network of networks, promises to revolutionize the way learning takes place. Developed before the introduction of the personal computer, the Internet did not enter the "mainstream" until the last few years, fueled by dramatic reductions in the costs of necessary hardware and software. An estimated 50 million people worldwide can access the Net, and that number is growing by leaps and bounds. This broad reach offers an unparalleled opportunity for communication, collaboration and resource sharing among educators. The hottest area today is the so-called World Wide Web, where anyone can post documents comprised of text, images and sound. The Web's enormous potential as a teaching tool is just starting to be realized. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that roughly half of the nation's public schools have Internet access -- up from 35% in 1994. Three-fourths of schools without access said they planned to connect in the future. Since T.H.E. Journal last covered this subject (in August 1995), dozens of companies -- new and old -- have released products transforming the look and feel of the Internet. This article examines some of the latest Net technologies that will impact K-12 and higher education. Due to the constantly evolving nature of this medium, readers are encouraged to closely monitor related publications for further developments and contact vendors directly for current product information. Getting Connected Options for Internet access range from dial-up accounts via standard phone lines to high-speed dedicated T1 or T3 service, appropriate for larger sites using a local area network (LAN). Commercial online services, such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe, may serve the needs of individuals or classrooms that wish to experiment with the Internet on a limited basis. However, serious Net surfers probably should turn to a genuine Internet Service Provider (ISP), which usually offers unlimited access for a fixed monthly fee. GTE, for example, provides unlimited dial-up service (through UUNET Technologies' backbone) in over 250 U.S. cities at a monthly rate of $19.95. GTE supports modems up to 28.8 Kbps as well as Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connections up to 128 Kbps. All of the big three long-distance phone companies operate networks connecting points of presence in major cities. MCI's campusMCI Internet program enables colleges and universities to deliver value-added Internet service to students, staff and alumni. Other firms serve particular regions of the country, such as BellSouth (in six southeastern states). For those frequently on the road, CERFnet offers toll-free Internet access from anywhere in the U.S., eliminating the need to search for a local access number in each destination. Buyers of modems, routers and other telecommunications hardware often will find bundled solutions for Internet access. Global Village's TelePort Platinum 28.8 external fax/modem includes the NETCOMplete software suite from NETCOM. If you're still confused about how to get on the data highway, Farallon publishes a free Internet Resource Guide with detailed steps. JDL Technologies, meanwhile, offers an online handbook for K-12 schools (www.jdltech.com/ netinfo.htm). Two videos, Educational Activities' "How to Join the Internet," and The Video Journal of Education's "WorldWalk: Connecting to and Using the Internet," show viewers how to avoid common roadblocks. Two noteworthy software tutorials are Internet Master, available from Educational Software Institute, and APTE's Internet Coach. OpenText's Internet Anywhere combines a tutorial with popular Internet applications such as Qualcomm's Eudora Lite e-mail package. Searching for Gems Once connected, what's next? Literally millions of pages of data have been posted on the World Wide Web, a multimedia subset of the Internet. Separating the gems from the garbage may seem like an overwhelming task. Online search engines provide some relief by generating lists of sites that match keywords entered by users. From the creators of Yahoo!, Yahooligans! (www.yahooligans.com) leads visitors to sites that focus on art, computers, science, entertainment and more. All sites have been hand-picked by editors at Ingenius as appropriate for kids. But what if your query brings forth no matches? Two new utilities -- Symantec's Internet FastFind and Iconovex's EchoSearch -- simultaneously contact multiple search engines, then merge and prioritize the results on a single page. EchoSearch even begins downloading relevant documents during the search, diminishing those pesky "Contacting host..." delays. A fee-based search engine, Cyberhound from Gale Research includes 75 criteria and ratings for pinpointing desired information. Reviews describe each site's contents as well as the group or person hosting it. Many magazines and books also list Web sites of interest to educators. Written in simple language, The Internet Kids Yellow Pages from Osborne/McGraw-Hill lists URLs (Web addresses) chosen by the author and a team of librarians and teachers. After locating areas on the Web that contain valuable resources, educators may wish to store URLs as "bookmarks" in their Web browser, permitting menu-click access. Two programs -- SIRSI's VIZION and Eastgate Systems' Web Squirrel -- visually organize URLs based on titles and keywords. Web sites also can be monitored with an offline browser such as Traveling Software's WebEx. WebEx automatically downloads data from user-selected Web sites at scheduled intervals. An indeprovides an overview of the downloaded sites. Like WebEx, ForeFront's WebWhacker performs unattended downloads of text, graphics and HTML links to local hard drives. By browsing offline, one can view information at accelerated speeds, reducing the time (and money) spent online. Plus, educators can make Web-based presentations that don't depend upon the stability of a live connection Blocking Out "Smut" One of the greatest challenges for educators is incorporating the Internet's vast resources into their curricula. Anxiety levels of administrators have been heightened by widespread media reports of indecent materials being broadcast to unsuspecting kids' computer screens. Luckily, several products and services now exist that let teachers safely integrate the Internet into everyday activities. A growing number of filtering programs disallow access to areas of the Net deemed inappropriate for youngsters. These programs typically rely on a database of banned sites (updated regularly, sometimes at no cost to users). SurfWatch, from Spyglass, g'es right to work once installed, blocking Web sites and newsgroups listed in its database. SurfWatch also prevents one from sending words to search engines that could lead to offensive material. Instructors may turn the protection on and off simply by entering a password (without quitting the Web browser). Other programs take a different approach, following a rating system that covers categories such as violence, nudity, sex or language. For instance, Microsystems Software's Cyber Patrol 3.0 restricts access to only sites rated by either the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) or SafeSurf. Scholastic Online, a subscription-based service for K-12 classrooms, enlists Cyber Patrol to customize the level of Internet access given to students; teachers also can limit the times of day that a child may go online. (With RSAC or SafeSurf, Webmasters rate their own sites according to criteria outlined on the two organizations' Home Pages; a script then produces an HTML advisory tag to be inserted into the rated pages.) At press time, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 was the only Web browser to implement a rating system (RSACi). Explorer also gives individuals the ability to override the blocking of a site by supplying a password. Unlike software filters, N2H2's BESS blocks objectionable Internet content before it physically reaches a school's workstations. The service requires no maintenance or updating by school staff. Instead, N2H2 remotely manages BESS to block entire domains, individual pages, chats and newsgroups, plus "X" out inappropriate language. Other services organize curriculum content for teachers and post it on a central server. Educational Structures (ES), from American Cybercasting Corp., digs deep into the subjects of social studies, science, math, language arts and health. Besides lesson plans, this K-12 service assembles online activities, quizzes and commercial publications. Schools or districts can try ES for two months, paying only for staff training. Similarly, Ligature's Gateway Academy for middle schools integrates key concepts and skills from core disciplines, carefully selected for their instructional value and engaging quality. A virtual Teacher's Lounge invites members to discuss their activities. Innovative Applications In addition to being an unsurpassed research tool, the Web brings people of common interests together with a few keystrokes. Videoconferencing is now possible from desktop computers, opening new doors for collaborative learning. White Pine Software's Enhanced CU-SeeMe provides real-time person-to-person or group videoconferencing over any TCP/IP network. The firm's Reflector technology allows up to 100 clients to "meet" on a single UNIX workstation to chat or collaborate on projects. This low-cost solution promises to extend distance learning to even the most cash-strapped districts or colleges. Another trend is the expansion of Internet-based training: courses created on and conducted across the Web. With IBTauthor from Stanford Testing Systems, courses are delivered to anyone using a standard Web browser. Presence Corp.'s QM Web provides a simple interface for creating and administering exams over the Net; answers are marked instantly or saved for later grading. Although this article concentrates on the Internet's instructional applications, schools can benefit in other ways. Caere Corp.'s OmniForm Internet Publisher, for example, facilitates the creation and submission of electronic forms, be they invoices, purchase orders or packing slips. Other new products help educators seamlessly download Internet files and save them to a CD-ROM (Elektroson's WebGrabber) or print them in double-sided booklets (Brother's Surf n' Print). Spinning Your Own Web Teachers and students who understand the basics of Web browsing may decide to take the next step: publishing their own work online. Building a personal Home Page is easier and cheaper than ever; by adding videos or animation, individuals can assemble dynamic sites that rival those of large corporations. Dozens of firms will "host" Web pages on their servers for little or no cost. When selecting a host, consider whether it limits storage space or charges a fee for modifications. NetSchool from Pierian Spring Software specializes in hosting educational Home Pages. By renting space from a host, schools can avoid the financial and technical investments associated with running their own server. However, administrators who want complete control over page content and security should probably establish a dedicated Web server onsite. O'Reilly & Associates recently made its award-winning WebSite 1.1 server software freely available to educators. Unlike the full product, the downloadable version d'es not include documentation or technical support. Expressly designed for the K-12 environment, IBM's NetVista runs under OS/2 Warp Connect on a single machine, housing Web, News, Mail and FTP servers. Sonic Systems enters this field with a suite of Internet servers for Macintosh computers. For a turnkey solution, check out the ProLiant and ProSignia models from Compaq, which now ship with Microsoft Internet Information Server for Windows NT. Another product, the BBN Internet Server comes preconfigured for operation of Web, e-mail, News and FTP services No More Coding Previously, to author Web pages, one had to learn complicated HTML (HyperText Markup Language) codes. Just like multimedia authoring packages have removed the hassle of programming, new tools perform the "dirty work" of HTML coding behind the scenes. Microsoft's FrontPage automatically imports and converts text files into HTML, generating styles such as bulleted lists and centered text. WebBot components let one instantly add features such as navigation bars and threaded discussion groups. To create a "hotspot," simply trace an area and turn it into a clickable image map. Claris Home Page sports Libraries that store frequently used text, images and HTML code, all of which can be imported into the Web page at hand; all URL links within the Library object stay "live." Users can preview how their site will appear under various browsers, or obtain estimated download times for images or entire pages (at 14.4 and 28.8 Kbps). Serious Webmasters may appreciate Adobe's PageMill 2.0, which allows them to switch between a point-and-click interface and actual source code. The program includes shortcuts for creating HTML tables and frames, and supports interactive elements such as Sun's Java object-oriented language. Two other Web publishing packages are DeltaPoint's QuickSite and Macromedia's Backstage; the latter includes tools for remotely managing a site. For quickly converting existing documents into HTML format, Quarterdeck's WebAuthor and InfoAccess' HTML Transit 2.0 will do the job. Microsoft offers free extensions (Internet Assistant) that add HTML tags to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access files. Finally, askSam System's askSam Web Publisher helps users place full-text searchable databases online. For a demonstration, log onto www.asksam.com. And Corel's WEB.DATA is a database publisher for Windows 95/NT; universities could use WEB.DATA to post class schedules or phone directories on their server, accessible via kiosks located throughout campus. Cutting-Edge Tools Of course, building a Web site d'es not guarantee that people will go there. While content is king, to attract repeat visitors it helps to have dazzling multimedia effects. Dozens of "plug-ins" and "applets" can spice up Web pages with images and sound; a few examples are mentioned below. Progressive Networks' RealAudio permits Web surfers to listen to live or recorded sounds, whether a musical composition or human speech. Similarly, VDONet's VDOLive compresses videos, which start playing as they are downloaded. Another plug-in, Macromedia's Shockwave! lets Webmasters add animations and interactive content to their pages. So-called Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) tools go further, enabling computer users to enter a natural 3D perspective space and manipulate objects in real time. Caligari offers Pioneer or Pioneer Pro for VRML authoring. Version 3.0 of Netscape Navigator, the leading Web browser, includes built-in support for live audio, video and 3D as well as a whiteboard for sharing and editing documents and pictures. As a result, expect more content providers to update their Web sites to take advantage of these capabilities. Also around the corner, Web pages soon may be able to display colors exactly as they appear in real life, thanks to Kodak's Photo CD technology, which adheres to international color standards. What Lies Ahead Although it's impossible to predict the future of the Internet, trends have emerged based on the publicized strategies of major players. First, with their eyes mainly on the burgeoning home market, several vendors are developing low-cost "network computers" (NCs) that comply with Internet specifications. Intended to be no larger than a VCR, the NC contains a modest amount of RAM and little or no local storage. Some prototype devices let one browse the Web through a television using a remote control or wireless keyboard. Sharp, Akai and WebTV Networks plan to roll out "Internet TVs" costing under $500 as early as this fall. It remains to be seen if the NC concept will attract followers in education, where computers are utilized for a multitude of tasks beyond Web surfing. Two industry giants have indicated that they aim to embed Web functions deep within the computer's operating system. With Apple's Cyberdog, users can take a Cyberitem (an icon that represents a URL) and drag it to the Macintosh Finder; clicking on the Cyberitem later will launch a connection to that particular resource. And Microsoft's HTML-based desktop, expected to be part of the next Windows OS release, will include a "news pane" that can display dynamically updated information from the Web. In addition, according to preliminary reports, Internet Explorer 4.0 can be "fully immersed" into the desktop, eliminating the need to open a separate browser application.
This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.