EDUCATION VIA ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES

Final Report, MIT Committee on EVAT


Advanced Technologies

The technologies that serve education have advanced along two somewhat orthogonal dimensions in recent years. First, computing has advanced -- it has become increasingly easy to process larger quantities of data and more complex systems in less time with smaller, cheaper machines. Second, connectivity has advanced -- it has become easier, faster, and more convenient to move information from one place and time to another, and from one form to another. Or from another point of view, it is increasingly convenient for humans to move their attention from one point in space and time to another, and from one medium to another.

Advanced Computing. A good example of advances in computing, at least around MIT, is what is known as "advanced visualization," wherein a computer produces manipulable images from a mathematical description of an elaborate structure. Another is simulation of complex systems; sometimes the two can be combined to even greater advantage. Advanced visualization has become important in fields ranging from molecular biology to architecture, and very interesting educational projects are underway in at least five departments at MIT. Another example is the extensive set of statistical tools undergraduates in Economics and Political Science now use routinely, and the symbolic-mathematics tools that pervade Engineering and Science subjects. Not all forms of advanced computing are of interest in all disciplines.

Advanced Connectivity. The best current example of advancing connectivity is the World Wide Web. Interactive multimedia projects, such as those at MIT variously involving Shakespeare performance and foreign-language instruction in French, Spanish, and Japanese, are also interesting examples, even though some are currently implemented on CD-ROMs without the Web, because of both the need for high bandwidth not yet available on the Internet, and the difficulties of placing copyrighted material on the Web (someday these truly interactive multimedia experiences will be distributed over the network rather than confined to local machines). Advances in connectivity are of general interest in all disciplines.

Perhaps the most interesting advanced technologies combine progress along both dimensions. It is increasingly feasible to contemplate a user locating information on a remote server, displaying it with a local browser, and then manipulating it using another remote server -- all with great convenience and almost unimaginable computing power. The Athena Computing Environment and several departmental facilities have helped translate computing advances into educational advances; we believe that it's time to see commensurate introduction of connectivity advances into education, so that these two dimensions of progress will combine synergistically.

The Committee considered its charge to be to investigate the educational impact of many advanced technologies, including the World Wide Web, the Internet, CD-ROMs, hypermedia, interactive TV, and others. These are the technologies of connectivity, as described here. The set of communication and display capabilities generally called the "World Wide Web" was chosen for detailed examination. There are other examples, such as video conferencing and other visual networking, but the Web captures the wonders and perils of advancing connectivity so well that we have concentrated on it in this report.

The World Wide Web

The Web is now in a state of flux. It is being "enhanced" by the addition of a large number of additional features, to the point where its universality and purity will be in jeopardy -- it will become sophisticated, in the literal sense, "devoid of natural simplicity." It may even be superseded by unforeseen new technologies. Thus in a few years the best technologies available may bear little resemblance to today's Web. Therefore, in this report, when we refer to the Web, we intend thereby to refer to other connective technologies that share, or will share, its general properties.

This page summarizes what we consider important about the Web for the purposes of our committee. Another page summarizes novel properties of the Web, and another discusses how the Web is likely to evolve in the future.

Presumably all readers have heard of the Web, many have used it previously, and (we hope) you are using it now to read this report. The Web is a system for using browser programs, with auxiliary helper (or viewer) applications, to view pages of information, often containing not only text but also graphical images, sound, and video, stored on thousands of Web servers connected to the Internet. For our purposes the Web consists of

The interface is graphical, and incorporates hyperlinks among the various pages containing the information. A glossary in this report explains some of the terms associated with the Web.

The Web has made the Internet accessible to people other than technical users, just as graphical interfaces have made personal computers more accessible. The Web does not, by itself, give users any capabilities they could not otherwise have. However, it does make the use of these capabilities very convenient.

Media

The following examples demonstrate the various media currently supported by the Web. (A more extensive set of demonstrations is available.) Each requires a helper application. If you do not have the appropriate helper installed on your computer and linked to your browser, the demonstration will fail (you can obtain helpers from an MIT-maintained library for Macintosh or DOS machines). If you have the helper installed, it will be automatically launched for you. To return to your Web browser, simply quit the helper. Some of these examples use large files that may take some time to download.
  1. Audio. Typical helper, SoundMachine.
  2. High-quality image, using JPEG format. Typical helper, JPEGView.
  3. Video, with (or without) sound, QuickTime format. Typical helper, Simple Player.
  4. Video, without sound, MPEG format. Typical helper, Sparkle
  5. Form or document, PDF format. Typical helper, Adobe Acrobat
  6. File transfer, FTP protocol, binhex coding. Typical helper, Stuffit Expander

Interaction

Web pages can be written so that hyperlinks activate arbitrary programs that can run on the servers (which are often UNIX workstations but could also be personal computers such as Macintoshes). Thus the Web should be thought of as a system not just for viewing pages, but for invoking programs on the server as well. These programs can be designed to produce any desired interaction with the remote user. Much of the potential of the Web for education is based on this type of interactivity. For example, one can imagine a student defining a system in some way, requesting a simulation, and viewing the results, all seamlessly within a Web browser. Typical simulations might be of physical systems -- electric circuits, fluids, electromagnetic fields, or chemical reactions -- or they might be of population statistics, business management, or airplane flight. As another example, the user, from within the browser, could control laboratory instruments, telescopes, vending machines, robots, and other apparatus.

History

Historically, hypertext has been explored as a medium by several writers. One of the earliest of the visionaries, Vannevar Bush, was on the faculty of the MIT Electrical Engineering department before he published his seminal paper, As We May Think, in Atlantic Monthly, July, 1945. Other early work in hypertext and hypermedia is described in the book "From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine," James M. Nyce and Paul Kahn, eds., Academic Press, 1991.

The World Wide Web was developed at CERN to help physicists exchange scientific information. Credit is normally given to Tim Berners-Lee. The first browsers were text based. Rapid increase in usage of the Web occurred after the graphical browser Mosaic was developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. The continued development of Web technology is a joint activity of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and INRIA. A consortium has been formed to support future developments and standardization.


This page revised July 31, 1995. Your comments about this report are welcome.
To the Table of Contents. Copyright (c) 1995 Massachusetts Institute of Technology