Final Report, MIT Committee on EVAT

Novel Properties of the Web

The WWW is not the first advanced technology thought to have useful applications in education. By and large, other advanced technologies have not substantially affected higher education. The Web is, however, sufficiently different from the others that many feel it will. The other advanced technologies we are referring to include: Of these, perhaps the one with the most impact has been the photo-copier! At MIT, Project Athena was established in part to promote the direct use of computers in education. This objective has been only marginally fulfilled. Instead Athena has provided computer and communications facilities that have come to define in many ways what the MIT community is, and thereby indirectly impact MIT education. As for TV, many universities (including MIT) have made extensive use of it to reach those off campus, yet it has not affected mainstream teaching very much.

Why is the Web Different?

We believe that hypermedia technology on the Web has features that may allow it to succeed in affecting education where these other technologies have not. In this discussion we use the Web as a metaphor for a class of future technologies which have at a minimum the Web features discussed below. Thus it may be that the educational impact is not from the Web but rather from a new technology that supersedes it.

The principal features of the Web seem to be that it is:

None of the other technologies listed above has all these properties. In fact, the Web has all the earmarks of a "killer app" for the Internet (an application that is so compelling that the underlying technology is acquired just to run it).

Pervasive. The Internet goes almost everywhere today, and it can be extended easily. One of the committee's recommendations is to extend MIT's data network to those few offices, labs, and living spaces at MIT that are not now connected.

The Web's span is truly "World Wide." There are sites on every continent, and almost every nation. Would you like to hear from the South Pole? Or a NASA space shuttle mission? When mankind colonizes the Moon or other planets, the name "World Wide Web" will have to be changed to "Solar System Wide Web."

Fast. Because the information travels electronically, it goes in a fraction of a second between where it is stored and where it is needed, no matter how far apart. Thus, in human terms, the response seems instantaneous, below the limit of patience. There is little if any danger of losing one's train of thought. Compare this with other techniques of information transfer -- a two-minute telephone call, a ten-minute walk to the library, a several-hour response to e-mail, or a week-long wait for answers to written inquiries.

On the other hand, the great popularity of the Web is leading to higher rates of data transfer than the Internet can handle, and "traffic jams" are frequent. The more exotic media (audio and video) require large files which do take considerable time to transfer.

Convenient. Publishing on the Web is easy. The conversion of various kinds of documents to the required HTML format is not difficult, and in the future there will be many tools for automatically generating Web documents. MIT students take to it easily -- over 1000 of them have asked that their own personal home pages be included in the list maintained by SIPB. There is also a centrally maintained list of about the same size. Who knows how many others have personal home pages on research machines? Already Microsoft has announced that its word processors will have HTML output. This report is being written using a shareware HTML editor that is claimed to be semi-WYSIWYG. At a higher level, we expect within a few years authoring tools that will greatly assist the writing of Web documents.

Browsing the Web is also easy. The graphical human interface of the popular Web browsers is intuitive, convenient, and pleasant to use.

Versatile. The Web is multi-media. Web pages can contain not only text and images, but also segments of sound and motion pictures. It is true that the sheer size of audio and video files makes them slow to retrieve, and the special "external viewers" needed to work with current Web browsers makes their use somewhat inconvenient. Nevertheless, if the application requires such media, they can be incorporated into Web documents.

The multi-media environment is useful for students as well as teachers. Students can use all these media to express their ideas.

The Web is also versatile in the structure of the information it contains. The links can point to anything and can be arranged in arbitrary patterns to match any structure. If used carefully, this versatility can lead to useful expressiveness.

Popular. The Web is rapidly becoming known to the general public. Newspapers love it. The Boston Globe has a weekly page on cyberspace, featuring a few "cool" Web sites. Even the comics are on the Web, and, as Arlo and Janis demonstrate here, the Web is in the comics (yes, there really is a coffee pot):

The public got a dramatic exposure to the Web during the July, 1994 comet impact on Jupiter -- the Web was a major method of transmitting images. The JPL comet home page got almost a quarter million "hits" on one day alone (July 20). Statistics of Internet usage show that as of December 1994, the Web accounted for 15% of all Internet traffic, compared with 2.2% a year earlier (by April 1995, it was up to 21%). The commercial on-line services (Compuserve, America Online, etc.) plan to offer both browsing and Web publishing to their clients. Web browsers will be built seamlessly into computer operating systems. Several commercial enterprises intend to bring commerce and shopping malls to the Web, and make money doing it.

On July 31, 1995, as the finishing touches were being applied to this report, an airplane was circling over Cambridge towing a banner with a URL printed on it in large letters.

As a result of all this public interest, educational applications will increasingly seem natural to students, most of whom will arrive at MIT already knowing how to use the Web.

Interactive. Interactivity is a necessary attribute of any successful educational technology. Passive watching of TV or, for that matter, an MIT lecture, is much less effective than an opportunity for the student to control the information exchange. Interactivity can take many forms. The Web is ideally suited for interactive access, since it is programmable: each transaction between browser and server can invoke an arbitrary program on the server. There are numerous successful interactive applications, including 8.07 in Fall 1994 at MIT, and the Berkeley virtual frog dissection.

The Dark Side of the Web

It is important to keep in mind that the Web is new and may have flaws and limitations which will only become apparent as it matures. Anyone who has browsed the Web can identify troubling features. Some of the more significant: Anyone contemplating a major educational initiative using Web technology will likely have to confront these and other limitations.
This page revised July 31, 1995. Your comments about this report are welcome.
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