Internet Tools That Support On-line Project-Based Learning and Teaching
What's All the Hype?
The digital revolution has taught us that anything is possible in the world of communication be it written, verbal, visual, or intersensory. In this day and age, it becomes important to know how to use the available tools to maximize digital communication systems that will assist us in making better connections on all levels. Educators are especially challenged to know how to utilize such systems because many believe that the future of teaching and learning relies on the dynamic structure of the Internet.
In this tutorial, we'll discuss software applications that are leading the way towards a digital teaching and learning revolution.
The World Wide Web
This is truly the "bells and whistles" application of the Internet. World Wide Web (WWW) pages have the ability to present multiple media, text, images, sounds, and moving pictures simultaneously. This puts it in a class by itself compared to other single medium applications. You, the user, can also interact with web pages to perform functions, such as sending and retrieving information. Web pages are sent for, received, and viewed via Web browsers. Several different browsers exist (e.g., Netscape, Mosaic, Internet Explorer, Opera) and some are available free to educators.
You begin by sending a request, via the browser, for a particular page. Each page has its own address, in the form of a Uniform Reference Locator aka Universal Resource Locator (URL). The address can include the name of the computer where the file is located and the directory. Web pages are transmitted to the WWW by Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). This protocol lets the computer know that a file is formatted in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). The HTTP and the HTML designations should look familiar if you have ever seen a WWW page with its address. All URLs begin with http:// and many end with html tags. Because URLs frequently have many unusual letter or character combinations (e.g., http://www.crazy-name/~loco.html), you need to be very careful when entering them.
Once the page comes up and appears in the browser, you will see that it is not a dead end. It contains information with links to other locations, either in the same document or in others at other places. These links are usually indicated by underlining and/or by >being a different color than the rest of the text. When you click on a link, you are really submitting a URL for your browser to retrieve. A new page with the new location will appear to replace the old one, but you can always retrace your steps by clicking on the "back" button or icon in the tool bar at the top of the browser.
WWW pages can contain much more than text and almost always do. Graphics, sound, sometimes moving pictures, interactive forms. All these can be represented in an HTML document and accessed by a web browser. Many times, the browser will need to call on helper applications or plug-ins to display these files. A helper application is a program that is automatically called by the browser when needed to display a file (e.g., sound, graphics) from the Internet. A plug-in is a special kind of helper application that is so well integrated into the browser that the file is actually displayed within the browser page itself, as if it were part of the page.
Videoconferencing technology, new to most teachers, librarians, and students, allows people at two or more locations to see and hear one another. Placing a video call is a lot like placing a telephone call. After you connect, you see the other person in color video and may be able to transfer files or collaborate via options such as document sharing or whiteboarding. The video frame rate varies from 5-30 frames per second, depending on the connection, hardware, and software.
The main problems with this method of video transmission include latency and loss of picture motion quality, high bandwidth requirements, picture quality degradation due to compression and decompression, and bandwidth hogs.
Skype is an application that enables videoconferencing. Skype software is available on the Internet as freeware. With this program, you can see and talk to someone at the same time. Obviously, this is optimal communication because you can get the body language, facial expressions, intonations - everything you can get live except being there.
You need a very fast modem to run this with good results. A 28.8-baud modem will work; however, the visual and audio portions will be out of sync. A high speed line is really necessary, but they are costly and not as practical. You also need some sort of video transmission device, such as a camera.
FTP (File Transfer Protocol)
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is used when you need to move files from one computer to another. Whether it is between the computer at the office, school, home, or even from a computer in another city, an FTP client and server are required. However, to move your own files, accounts on both computers are necessary. To utilize this function, you would either type "ftp" at the command prompt, or click on the FTP icon on the computer you are using to see if the client is present. If you can access the account on the computer that is available, you're home free.
The Benefits of FTP:
FTP can help you in circumstances when you are away from your personal computer and account but need to move files back and forth between your own computer and the computer you are using at any given location. For example, if you are at a conference preparing for your presentation and you discover that you left several important handouts at home, FTP can access your account and transfer your files to you. All you need to do is gain access to a local computer, telnet to your account and find the files. Teleneting to your account will let you see the files, but it will not let you get them. You need to FTP the files to the computer where you are. Imagine, you can then print out your handouts for your presentation within the time frame needed to transfer the files. If your handouts include graphics or something other than text, you can still FTP them. You just need to pay attention to the transfer mode settings: ascii, or binary. Basically, the former is for text only while the latter will transfer graphics, sound, moving pictures, and non-Roman character sets. When in doubt, try it and see if it works. If not, go back and change the settings and try again.
The other option for FTP is using an anonymous FTP server. Quite a common practice on the Internet for downloading shareware, freeware, or any sort of file that someone has made available to the general public. Usually, the login name is "anonymous" and entering a password is not necessary.
You may, however, need to enter your e-mail address as the password. Depending on how large the files are on these anonymous servers, they may be stored in a compressed format (ZIP for MS-DOS or Windows environments and Stuff-it for the Macintosh platform). You will need the decompression software to open the files once you have ftp'd them to your computer. It's not as complicated as it may sound.
Participation in Usenet groups is another way to join an Internet discussion. These groups function like bulletin boards where people post their messages and respond to others. They differ from discussion lists in that you do not join, but rather access the postings via a Usenet reader if your service provider gives you this option.
Also, the postings are "on the bulletin board" and do not come to your mail account or your computer. In this way, Usenet groups take up much less space on your computer or in your Internet account. You can follow a thread of discussion and your Usenet reader keeps track of the messages in that thread that you have or have not read. In some ways, Usenet groups are easier for people to manage. On the other hand, they require much less commitment and are perhaps not taken nearly as seriously as membership in a discussion list. Consequently, the whole range of discussion, acceptable, useful, or not, is present in these groups.
(Internet Relay Chat)
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a real-time application that permits synchronous conversation among users around the world. This popular tool creates channels that users can log on to and then chat away. The conversations are seen because you have to type rather than talk (simultaneously) with anyone who is on that channel. Likewise, you can be responded to by anyone as well. You can issue a command to see what channels are active at any given moment. As channel names generally reflect the topic of conversation, you can steer clear of those that would not interest you. It is also possible to create a private channel for a closed classroom discussion. Software for IRC is available through the Internet as either shareware or freeware.
The Bottom Line
What does all this hype mean for teaching and learning? Think about it. Many of the applications discussed can be used to design project-based learning environments that have the potential to redefine teaching and learning as we know it. Although, using the Internet as a vector for project-based learning is currently in its experimental stage. However, as electronic charter schools come of age, you will see this concept continue to reach new heights.