Difficulties of Implementing and Maintaining a WorldWide Web Site to Support Instruction[+]

Revue Informatique et Statistique dans les
sciences humaines, 1996 (in press)

Howard Besser
Visiting Associate Professor
School of Information Management & Systems
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-4600
tel: (510)643-7365
fax: (510)642-5814
howard@sims.berkeley.edu

This article reports on the experience of using the WorldWide Web to support the teaching of a distance learning course presented simultaneously at the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. This course used generic tools (such as commercial Web browsers and standard Unix file systems) to deliver course material to students in both sites. Paying particular attention to methods for making curricular support material stand on its own without the presence of the instructor, the article outlines a wide variety of issues, including: design concerns, technical limitations, and privacy issues. Concerns of ongoing maintenance of a WorldWide Web site are dealt with in detail.

The Course

"Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and Networks" was an experimental, graduate-level course taught simultaneously in the Schools of Information and Library Studies at both the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Michigan. (For further information on the course and technological delivery methods, see Besser 1995.) The course content aimed to critically examine the new information landscape and was essentially a communications course.

In addition to standard class attendance and readings, students were expected to join a focus group which paid special attention to issues related to the course, such as information retrieval, technology and creative arts, critical theory, or the possibility of virtual communities. Each of these groups met weekly and created and maintained an online news group, as well as a WWW page for their group. Students also created a Web page for themselves individually, reviewed a multimedia program and an online service provider, and did a major project or paper on some topic related to the class.

The instructor had taught the course in Berkeley three previous times without the distance aspect. Each time the course was taught, student work from previous terms was used as readings and other resource material, essentially building up a set of resources in this domain. And each time the course was taught, more automation and online resources were added to those of the previous term.

Papers reviewing various aspects of the course, as well as most of the WWW documents that students used in the course are available at http://www.si.umich.edu/impact/Winter95/ .

The WWW Site

Logistical problems in maintaining identical sets of class handouts and reserve reading materials at both sites created a strong argument for distributing these materials online instead of in print. The topical nature of the class also made it nearly impossible to distribute print versions of reading materials to both sites in a timely matter. (Frequently the class would discuss articles from that day's or the day before's newspaper which the instructor would post online.) Providing online course materials also immersed the students in the subject of the class -- the impact of new information technologies.

Course materials were all posted as WWW documents and linked on a class HomePage (figure #1). These materials included the instructor's and students' HomePages, the syllabus, a course description including major themes and questions of the course (figure #2), assignments (figure #3), information about guest speakers, readings (updated weekly) (figure #4), materials from earlier versions of the course (figure #5), and, as the semester progressed, Discussion Group HomePages (Figure #6) and student essays (figure #7) and projects (figures #8-10). The site served both as an online coursepack (facilitating both instructor and student access to readings and assignments), and as a repository of information about the course for outsiders.

WWW Management Issues

The construction of a WWW site for this class exposed a wide variety of problems inherent in maintaining an ongoing WWW site with multiple contributors. This included issues of permission control, physical arrangement of files, ownership and maintenance of files, and presentation to end users.

Social and Policy Issues

The presentation of such a WWW site also raises a variety of social and policy issues. These include concerns over maintaining currency vs. archiving, over privacy, and over developing a dependence upon a set of technological tools.

Conclusion

Maintaining a WWW site for a distance learning class revealed a number of serious concerns that need to be dealt with in any robust WWW site. This course employed generic tools (such as the Netscape Web Browser) to support Web access, and it is clear that such tools are not yet capable of handling such problems as those outlined in this article. But as the features of specialized Hypermedia tools migrage into commercial Web browsers, we should see some improvement in this situation. In any case, the issues reviewed here should be useful for anyone planning to mount a WWW site.

Acknowledgments

The course was funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies for the development and redefinition of Information Studies curriculum. Research Assistants Maria Bonn and Sara Ryan (Michigan), and Alex Sutton and Natalie Zee (California) helped coordinate both the class and the Web site.

Bibliography

Howard Besser. Multimedia and Networks Teach about Museums in David Bearman (ed.), Multimedia Computering and Museums (Selected Papers from the Third International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums) Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1995, pages 124-140

Anja Haake and David Hicks. VerSE: Towards Hypertext Versioning Styles in Hypertext '96 (Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext, Washington DC, March 16-20 1996) New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 1996, pages 224-234


[+] Portions of this article originally appeared in a paper entitled Multimedia and Networks Teach about Museums in David Bearman (ed.), Multimedia Computering and Museums (Selected Papers from the Third International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums) Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1995, pages 124-140

Last modified: 9/7/1996