EDUCATION VIA ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES

Final Report, MIT Committee on EVAT


Educational Uses of the Web

There is not enough experience with the Web or Web-like technologies in education to draw any reliable conclusions. Here is what the Committee believes is true.

Distance Learning

It is tempting to think that the Web or related technologies could enable distance learning. Some of the long-range recommendations of this Committee deal with this question. The Committee is divided in its opinion about whether distance education is now practical, in the sense that it can have the same effectiveness as on-campus education.

The Web is really just a communications medium. Probably nobody would argue that computers, slides, videotapes, notes, and computer simulations are sufficient for learning, although a good teacher may want to make use of all of those media. Those media are exactly what the Web can (or, in the case of TV, will someday be able to) deliver to remote sites. If that was all there was to education, then the Web would make distance education possible. What is more difficult, of course, is to transmit the human aspect: the excitement of a great lecturer, the individual interactions of a tutorial, and the motivation and stimulation provided by the other students and staff. The Web is no substitute for the residence experience. Also, it cannot deliver a real laboratory experience -- just a simulation of it.

Nevertheless, there are examples of successful distance education, before the Web existed, based on real-time TV with audio feedback, or on Tutored Video Instruction. (TVI, which was pioneered in the 1970s at Stanford University by Prof. James F. Gibbons, involves viewing a videotape in a group, with frequent stops to discuss points of interest led by a Teaching Assistant. Gibbons reports, on the average, about 0.3 higher GPA for TVI students as compared with normal students.)

Interactions

The Web is capable of providing, at a distance, access to general-purpose computing. Arbitrary interactive sequences can be programmed. Thus specialized calculations can be done on a central computer on behalf of many clients located across the campus (or across the world). One application of this capability is to provide distance simulation, of a physical, social, economic, political, or other system or situation. The student could specify the conditions of the simulation (shape of a fluid channel, waveform of an input signal, competitive market of a company, breeding population laws, etc.) and then see the results of the simulation immediately. This capability could be used in a "discovery" mode by merely trying different things. Or, with guidance, it could be used to verify some of the general principles under discussion. It could be used in place of an experiment that, if actually carried out, would be dangerous.

An interesting use of such simulation is as a rehearsal for a laboratory experience. By simulating the experiment the night before, a student could spend less time in the lab and be more effective while there.

Access to Resources

The Web is well suited to making a vast array of resources located on the Internet available. Before long many magazines and books will be available on the Web. Because Web publication is so easy, material can be generated casually, as needed. Collections can be assembled, in the form of short lists of URLs and brief comments. The material can be very timely. For example, the most definitive study of the floating-point error of the Pentium chip was available soon after the problem surfaced, and could easily have been incorporated into a subject in VLSI chip architecture.

Because of the ease with which material can be published on the Web, some of it is not well designed and thought out. One of the jobs of faculty who wish to make use of these resources will be separating the wheat from the chaff.

Administrative Uses

The Web is ideally suited to deliver administrative information to students. This can include notes, schedules, problem sets, solutions, and so on. Although it is tempting to dismiss this use as unimaginative, in practice students are very appreciative of this service, which is generally the first thing done on Web home pages of MIT subjects. (There was a time when use of computers for word processing was considered similarly unimaginative.)

Examples at MIT

Many MIT subjects have home pages on the Web. One example is 6.004 Computation Structures. Its home page includes links to all sorts of administrative and technical material, including term-long schedule, staff lists, lecture notes, problem sets, lab instructions, and so on. Another example is 4.605 Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture. Its home page links to an extensive collection of images used in the subject, indexed by city, architect, and time.

A list (probably incomplete) of MIT subject home pages was made for the Committee. Some individual departments (e.g., EECS) have their own lists of subject home pages.

Examples outside MIT

A list has been compiled of university subjects with some degree of presence on the Web. It is broken into dozens of academic areas.

Summary

The Web and related technologies cannot replace most of the human aspects of learning, but they can and do provide useful aids to teaching. As time goes on we will learn how to use this resource more effectively. Eventually, we may be comfortable with the notion of distance education, where the Web will play a central role.
This page revised June 1, 1995. Your comments about this report are welcome.
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