What Next for the Web and Education?

THOUGH THERE ARE SOME technoskeptics and informational Luddites who suggest that the World Wide Web is only a passing fad, certain facts would suggest that this is highly unlikely. The Web has found enormous success word-of-mouth - it is soon expected to pass file transfer protocol as the highest user of bandwidth on the Internet. Moreover, commercial developers have recently adopted the Web as their new pet cybermedium, from the online auctions like EBay site to Salon Magazine. Increasing the profitability of these ventures has been the integration of basic Web browsers in the operating systems for both Macintosh and Intel-based PCs, as well as Prodigy's and America On-Line's recent moves to make the Web accessible over its commercial subscription services to millions of users.

Assuming that the future of the Web is secure, at least for several years to come, what steps must be taken in order to further its development as an educational instrument? Above all else, institutional access to the Internet must increase dramatically. Though many schools are lucky enough to have formed partnerships with universities and local business in order to gain access (and still others have received networking grants or employ persistent technophiles as educators), the overwhelming majority of schools lack the hardware needed just to get connected in the first place. And while policymakers and politicians argue how to best finance schools for technology development, it is still possible for many schools to get started.

Ideally, more community networks and freenets must begin to offer Web access at reasonable rates, and more importantly, they must offer schools and classrooms server accounts so they may publish Web sites of their own. The Web will only grow if people are willing to commit the time and energy to creative pursuits, and the first step to this goal will always be through the providing of easy access. Additionally, members of the community who already have access and experience should offer their assistance to demonstrating to others what the Web can do and how simple it is to develop a new site. In the world of Web development, there are scores of experts who are always willing to donate their time to each other in order to expand the various offerings already available over the Web.

Yet because of the communal nature of the Internet, rarely do we see them venturing out of cyberspace into the real world to provide their knowledge to those who lack it. This is not to say that there aren't committed individuals who are doing more than their fair share to enhance the educational community, but the numbers of volunteers must increase if we ever truly wish to see the Web expand into education. And as people begin to explore the Web and publish their own electronic products, the quality and creativity of Web sites will increase dramatically. Few Web sites ever exist in a vacuum - as people access it, the publisher is bound to get inundated with suggestions, criticism, and encouragement, which usually translate into further development of the site.

What is bound to be most fascinating, though, is the integration of new Internet technologies into the world of the Web. For instance, Internet Relay Chats (real-time group discussions) and MUD's (Multiple User Dungeons, essentially an IRC in an interesting setting) could provide users and designers with the ability to interact with each other live, instead of having to wait for a listserv to distribute the information as it is posted via e-mail. Similarly, webmasters may begin to integrate the user of CUSeeMe into Web sites. CUSeeMe, a teleconferencing program originally developed at Cornell, allows users to see and hear each other by way of a video camera by converting the data into an Internet-compatible format. Programmers are now experimenting with software that will allow easy access to these live discussions in a Web environment, and when combined with the Web's audiovisual capabilities, one could only begin to imagine the possibilities for on-line education and enhancement.

And what of the next generation of hypermedia tools - is there a protocol which will be better than the Web? According to some Internauts, there already is. Hyper-G, a new protocol designed by researchers at Austria's Graz Technology University, is a cross between the Web and gopher. Like the Web, Hyper-G is easily hypernavigatable and can access other Internet tools like FTP and e-mail. But unlike the Web, Hyper-G can handle enormous amounts of data and automatically process it into multiple subject areas. It can interpret Postscript files, which saves time and allows greater flexibility in terms of document layout. Perhaps most interesting is Hyper-G's ability to assign users access privileges, so users can get on and add their own documents to certain areas and thus become telecommuting co-publishers of a site. Fortunately for proponents of the World Wide Web, Hyper-G is totally compatible with Web browsers and vice-versa, so as Hyper-G begins to spread throughout the Internet, its high-data advantages will probably steer it towards certain uses. In the end, it will not be a matter of Hyper-G versus the Web, more likely is that they will complement each other as people begin to explore each protocol's potential.

But for now, the World Wide Web will continue as the protocol of choice for many network users, and its growth as an education tool will doubtfully taper off any time soon. The Web is accepted internationally because of its relative ease of use and cross-compatibility, and future changes in HTML standards (especially in layout design and in the integration of live communication protocols) will inevitably make it even more powerful. For the educational community, on-line hypermedia offers a simple way to design interactive lessons for local and distant use. And as the World Wide Web becomes more accessible to schools around the country, teachers and students alike will be able to explore cyberspace and design new resources for a multitude of purposes that have yet to be realized.

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