I have been using the web to teach information literacy for five years now (as I discovered by looking back over my notes to spring of 1994, when I made my first NCSA Mosaic pages for a class in Latin American Studies), in lots of different courses. This year I've been experimenting with having students in two courses use Netscape Composer to create pages to submit (and publicly display) their coursework, with the idea that public pages (visible by others in the class and by parents, etc...) are an inducement to take a different sort of pride in their work than they would if assignments are just what they think is enough to psych out the prof. That scheme has worked pretty well, and you can explore it via the URL on my handout, but it's not what I want to tell you about today.

The "information literacy" I aimed to develop in the project I'm going to describe was that of the instructor in a course. The background question here is

?how to get faculty to make use of the web as a tool to augment their teaching?
And the answer seems to begin with demonstrating that it's not so hard to build pages, but quickly leads on to adapting existing software and designing tools to solve fairly specific problems. Pretty quickly one gets out of one's depth, and has to seek the assistance of experts, but the resulting cooperation can produce some very interesting results.

The choice of a General Ecology course for the project I'm going to describe was a happy accident, product of a conversation with the Chairman of the Biology Department about who he thought might be interested in exploring new ways to use multimedia in teaching. He (Larry Hurd is his name) said that he'd been thinking about reorganizing his Ecology course, and I said well... how about if I sit in on the course and see if I can help out? I had the further agenda of trying to figure out how to get students to make more and better use of library resources.

Now, Ecology courses involve a lot of visual material, both slides and mathematical models. The great disadvantage to students is that a slide or an overhead is on the screen for a few minutes and then it's gone. Obviously the slides could be scanned and put on the web for later review, but the real problem is that professors who use slides a lot generally have lots of slides, which they have to sort through to prepare a lecture. Could I design and then somehow get built a management tool so that Larry could make more efficient use of his slide archive? And could that tool also create web pages, so that he wouldn't have to learn HTML in order to put his material on the web?

I imagined the management tool possessed of several stages:

  1. Larry would use Excel (with which he was quite familiar) to create an image database, supplying his own analytical categories for the images, each of which would have a unique ID number;
  2. the slides would be scanned and saved as .jpg files on a network drive;
  3. a forms-based web interface would allow him to search the database and see thumbnail images, which he could then order and annotate with text commentary; and
  4. an HTML page would be generated to display the selected images and commentary.
I knew this scheme was possible using perl to write a cgi-bin script --but I also knew that I wasn't going to be able to write the script. So I went to talk to the perl maven in University Computing and he looked at my flowchart and said, "cool, no problem" (he'd actually written something quite similar a short time before, and was able to adapt the code).

With this encouragement I got together with the Director of the Media Center and we put together a proposal for a small internal grant from the Class of 1965 Endowment for Excellence in Teaching

to develop a suite of web-based multimedia tools for the purpose of instruction in Biology 245 (General Ecology) in Fall 1998; and to create both a pedagogical model and scaleable courseware applicable to other courses in the sciences and elsewhere.
Since we were exploring a variety of possible tools we decided to include among the "multimedia" the creation of some Java applets to make mathematical models manipulable by students (reasoning that hands-on experience with parameters should make the models more understandable than just seeing them on overheads in class). We included funds for The idea was that the management tool, once developed, would be useful to quite a few other professors --those in Art History and Geology being obvious candidates-- who make extensive use of slides in classes. Larry went through his carousels and made the Excel database with description of each of 395 slides, which were then scanned and processed in time for the start of classes in September.

So I sat in on the course, and decided to keep a running log of my participation via a web page which has links to scanned images and Larry's annotations of them, to the Java applets, to various library and internet resources I wanted to add, and to exam keys and other material and course information Larry wanted to distribute. The experiment worked tolerably well, in that Larry's interest in using the web was whetted on the stone of experience, students commented favorably on improved access to the images and other resources, and I gained a much better sense of what actually happens in lecture and field parts of the course, and what goes on (and doesn't go on...) in the undergraduate mind.

The rough-and-ready form of the image management tool needs refinement in order to be of general utility, but I can show you how it works in its outlines (because it's a UNIX cgi-bin application I can't show it live, and so I have a series of screen dumps):

The cgi-bin form allows anybody passworded to use the Image Archive Index to access an existing archive or create a new one:

The archive called "Hurdlist 395" includes several "available presentations" for display or editing:

If one chooses to create a new presentation, one chooses among categories that Larry established for the images:

If one chooses to edit a presentation once images have been selected, a screen like this appears:

(in this case Larry has added an annotation). The resulting web page looks like this:

It may also be of some interest to see an example of a Java applet, in this case a classical model of predator-prey relationships. Here we see what happens if you change the number of lynxes or the number of hares.

In short, this project exemplifies the kind of cooperation that's often necessary in creating really useful web material, and in going beyond the basics of HTML that are easily learned. Library, Media Center, University Computing, Biology Department and Dean's Office --and students-- all contributed important pieces of the whole. There's more to do with the interface of the image management tool, many more slides that could be added to the database (as Larry has time) and scanned, and the promising start with the Java applets can be extended to include more models. Larry is enthusiastic about using the materials in next year's iteration of the course, and I am hoping to interest other faculty in adapting the basic model to their specific problems.