TO: Larry Boetsch, Dean of the College
FROM: Larry Hurd, John Blackburn, Hugh Blackmer
DATE: 30 March 1998

SUBJECT: Application for Class of 1965 Endowment for Excellence in Teaching

Biology 245 General Ecology: a collaboration between Dr. Larry Hurd, the Media Center, and the Science Library

Purpose: to develop a suite of web-based multimedia tools for the purpose of instruction in this course in Fall term 1998; and to create both a pedagogical model and scalable courseware templates applicable to other courses in the sciences and elsewhere.

General Ecology provides an excellent test case for tool development and collaboration, drawing upon the complementary skills of Hurd, Blackburn and Blackmer: the course has well-developed visual materials (in the form of the instructor's extensive collection of slides), includes extensive use of mathematical models of population phenomena, and draws upon a broad literature in books and journals. Weekly labs involve student participation in data collection, statistical analysis, and presentation of findings.

We believe that each of these facets would benefit from web presentation:

  1. slides can be digitized and presented on the Web via hypertext annotation

  2. mathematical models can be made interactive via Java and/or Perl

  3. library resources can be directly linked to course topics and activities

  4. lab work and reports can be made into public and collaborative documents

The pedagogical significance and modus operandi of each of these points is worth developing in detail:

  1. Slides are an excellent medium for class presentation of complicated visual material, but they have the disadvantage that once shown they are gone. Digitizing slide images (and refining them with image software) is a straightforward but time-consuming process which renders them distributable on the web, where they are available for detailed study by students. The added possibility of annotating images and linking them into coherent groups offers the possibility of an online teaching tool that goes beyond the use of the images in class.

    We propose to develop a simple and easy-to-use administrative interface which will enable the instructor to work with the digitized images, organizing them and composing accompanying explanatory text, without the need to resort to the intricacies of HTML code. Such a tool would have broad utility and general applicability for any courses that use still images. We will also develop appropriate procedures for dealing with copyright questions for images from other sources.
  2. The great disadvantage of traditional overhead-based presentation of mathematical models is that they are static: students view a graph, but have no opportunity to substitute values or watch the process by which data become patterns. In recent years software to animate the presentation of such models has been developed and is used in many fields; it is now practical (using Java and Perl) to build web-based realizations which permit students themselves to experiment with substituting values, varying parameters, and generally exploring "what if..." on an interactive basis.

    An example (a version of the Lotka-Volterra equations which model predator-prey relations) of a Java implementation (including the Java code for the applet) is available at , and the existence at W&L of a site license for Symantec's Visual Café(in effect, a Java interface construction kit) makes it possib le to consider building the tools to assist instructors in creating their own interactive realizations of models.

    We propose to develop applets to allow students to work with the standard models of biological ecology (outlined in Gotelli 1995 A Primer of Ecology), using the applet above as a model. The broader objective is to develop generally applicable templates and procedures that will minimize the necessity for an instructor to learn the intricacies of Java or Perl (though consultation with skilled programmers may still be necessary to realize an idea as a working applet).
  3. Many courses are lecture- and textbook-based, and few make creative use of the possibilities for integration of existing library and Internet resources: few students have the retrieval skills or the motivation to find supplementary materials on their own, and instructors rarely have the time to explore current literature in adjacent subdisciplines. Librarians, on the other hand, specialize in exploration and retrieval, but generally have limited occasion to consider the information opportunities of individual courses (single guest appearances, often tied to necessary skills for specific assignments, are the most common venue). What could a librarian accomplish for a course?

    We propose to experiment with a librarian as a 'Resident Adjunct' to (and participant observer of) Biology 245. Opportunities for augmenting course materials will probably center upon use of the web as a tool to create and distribute materials linking lecture and lab material to relevant library and Internet resources, but may include other activities as well.
  4. Students have traditionally been evaluated with examinations, homework, lab reports, research papers --written material produced for the supervising professor, and generally seen by nobody else. One skill that is not developed by this regimen is that of public presentation --despite the fact that presentation is a skill very highly valued in real life and by the marketplace. It seems obvious that people are more involved in and committed to the work they do if it is intended to be seen (and admired, and criticized) by others.

    The web provides a medium for composition and distribution of personal creations, and the "Save As HTML" feature of the latest versions of word processors puts the basic web page creation tool in the hands of any user of W&L's networked computers. Jefferson and Madison make it a relatively simple thing to make web pages accessible (to other members of a class, to all W&L users, or to the world at large). We propose to experiment with this potential, in part to see what kinds of support would be required to extend this sort of active creation of (semi-)public documents to other courses.

    We will also explore the creation of online data input and statistical analysis modules for the laboratory portion of the course, using spreadsheet macros, perl, and Java applets.

Success with this project will have the following benefits for the participants in the collaboration:


We intend to undertake this experiment in any case, and the budget request is intended to underwrite some elements which would greatly facilitate the carrying out of the scheme outlined above:

Slide digitizer: this equipment (use of which needs supervision and training, and which should be located with a dedicated and accessible multimedia workstation) is an essential for the Media Center as more courses begin to consider the web as a distribution medium for images. It makes particular sense as an investment when used in conjunction with the forms-based link construction utility described in (1), above. Cost: $2,000

Image manipulation software: PhotoShop is the industry standard, and often comes bundled with slide digitizers. Cost: $250

Slide digitizing and image processing labor: the basic process is not complicated, but is time consuming. Summer employment for several weeks for a high school student. Cost: $750

Java programming: while it would be nice to think that Science Librarian and Media Center Director can develop the requisite skills, it's probably wiser to budget for the services of a Computer Science student who has taken courses in Java. Cost: $1,000


Total: $4,000