The Web as Tutor:

Hypertextual Teaching Aids

THE MOST BASIC element of using the Web as a pedagogical instrument is found in its ability to present information clearly, attractively and practically. HTML standards dictate how a Web site is to be interpreted by a Web browser, so when one converts a text document into a Web document, its appearance as a user-friendly HTML document can be predicted with ease. Additionally, one can use hypertext to organize enormous amounts of data in a relatively lucid fashion, using menus, key word searches, even clickable graphics as a means to link the user to more and more information.

From a curricular point of view, the Web can be used to design tutorials and on-line lessons for a variety of subjects. For example, Roger Blumberg of the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems at Brown University has created an online tutorial on basic genetics known as MendelWeb. With MendelWeb, students are introduced to basic genetics and the writings of scientist/monk Gregor Mendel by reading a hypertext version of his seminal treatise, Experiments in Plant Hybridization (available in both English and in German). The hypertext version of Mendel's writings contain links to a dictionary of terms, as well as annotated comments from other readers that can be added to by any user. (note: a new section of on-line homework sets should be added in the near future.) In a sense, an automatic tutor is already built into the Web site; discussion and questions are presented as they would be in a live introduction to biology course, yet because the coursework is built into the Web, each student may dissect the subject (and thus progress her comprehension of it) at her own rate.

One of the most established examples of using the Web as a teaching device is Engines for Education, a hyperbook written by Roger Schank and Chip Cleary of the Institute of the Learning Sciences. Schank, one of the leading minds in artificial intelligence and education technology research, strongly believes that students should be allowed to learn according to their own interests. Instead of being forced to memorize the quadratic equation, for example, students should question how it may relate to their lives and only then come up with a good reason to learn it. His methods are rather Socratic in nature - learning must be based on questions, not on answers that are offered without due cause.

With this logic in mind, Schank and Cleary designed Engines, a discussion of the poor state of education today and how high technology could be used to solve many of its problems. When a user first logs onto Engines, she is offered a variety of ways to begin:

Just Curious ...

I have no specific agenda in viewing this book. Show me something interesting.

Media Maven ...

I enjoy finding out about the latest innovations in media.

Business Person ...

My concerns relate to business and industry.

Educator ...

I'm mainly interested in issues concerning education and learning.

These categories provide the user with different angles from which to begin the hyperbook. Some users may be more interested in software development, and not the actual plight of American education; Engines lets them do that, and will only lead the discussion back into education when it fits into the context of the user's requests. Moreover, Schank and Cleary recognize an important, unavoidable fact - not every reader is going to care about every subject within a hyperbook, and others still will not have a strong enough grasp of the subject to know where to begin. For this reason, there is also an option for those who don't have a particular interest, and only wish to see something that may entertain them.

Upon entering a topic on Engines, the user is presented with an introductory paragraph, along with a comprehensive list of questions related to that paragraph. For example, the chapter on education will offer questions such as "How do students learn?," "Why are schools boring to so many kids?" and "How do computers fit into school reform?" Each question then leads to more information, which leads to more questions. All in all, there are scores of questions and answers available - and therefore thousands of different interpretations and uses of the hyperbook as a whole.

Engines for Education is an excellent example of educational Web design because the authors of the hyperbook have carefully mapped out the possible outcomes of each nugget of information offered in the text. By making a statement such as "Computers will help students learn," Schank and Cleary have attempted to come up with as many conceivable questions as possible that might be raised from such a statement. And each answer to these questions will lead to more questions, and undoubtedly some of these will then connect directly with other subtopics within the book. In the end, a successful Web book such as Engines must crafted with sometimes thousands of links and hundreds of pages. Yet with the proliferation of automatic HTML authoring programs, such linkages will no longer seem as daunting a task as this example might suggest. And to make hyperbook design even simpler, programmers at the Institute are working on what are known as ASK systems - automatic, intelligent computer programs which will analyze a document's content with inquisitive search agents in order to help formulate questions that might be raised by that content

In sum, the World-Wide Web provides an excellent tool in which to design on-line curricula. Yet the potential of Web tutorials has yet to be realized largely because most Web books have been technically oriented, and in order for this technology to reach the mainstream, we must also design Web tutorials for history, music, language arts, and other less technically-minded disciplines. For example, there already exists on the Web carefully annotated and cross-referenced hypertexts of the complete works of Shakespeare. With a little more work, such a site could easily include question and answer sessions (a la Engines for Education), as well as audio and video clips of each play and poem. With the World-Wide Web, anyone could transform a topic of choice into a living, breathing document that would be more than just useful and educational to students - it would also be fun.

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