Educational Journeys on the Web Frontier

Ben Shneiderman, Dept of Computer Science

University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742

Draft: August 2, 1998

Published in EDUCOM Review 33, 6 (Nov/Dec 1998), 10-14

Between the sunny enthusiasm of web frontier utopians and the dark visions of web worriers, stands the courageous professor who must teach next semester's course. The web utopians promise low-cost distance learning, virtual universities-without-walls, and lively student interaction by video conferencing. The web worriers predict commercial sell-outs, universities-without-souls, and the end of academia as we know it. But the next semester is about to begin and our courageous professor must decide soon about where to go and how to get there.

Small fractions of the faculty of most universities are becoming pioneers in video classrooms with synchronous distance learners or electronic classrooms with computers for pairs or individual students. Teaching in such environments can be an exciting opportunity for novel educational strategies, but it requires major university investment in infrastructure and long-term planning (Shneiderman, Alavi, Norman, and Borkowski 1995;

Shneiderman, Borkowski, Alavi, and Norman 1998). Larger fractions teach in classrooms that enable the professor to do computer demos, show PowerPoint slides, and surf the internet. For the majority of professors at North American universities, the reality is that listservs or bulletin boards are possible, and that web access and email are commonly available, but outside the classroom.

Educational technologies as transportation

Videoconferencing and electronic classrooms are the supersonic Concordes of our profession; they are expensive and take planning to use, but can do some amazing things. By contrast, listservs and bulletin boards are the buses and trains; they require modest resources and planning, but have a wider impact on daily life. Web access and email are the automobiles; they are widely available and highly flexible to serve individual learner and team needs.

So the truly technology entranced professor who wants to fly, has signed up for pilot training. But the rest of us can manifest the right stuff by getting our students to be effective users of the commonly available information technologies. However, the goal is successful learning -- not merely to get students to use these technologies. We are not out to promote bus riding or car cruising. The courageous professor has a pedagogic or curricular destination in mind and knows that the technology is just the vehicle for getting there.

Designing a course is still about choosing destinations and planing how to get there -- whether it is French literature or organic chemistry. The professor plans what to do during class meetings and what students must do between them. The traditional strategy was for hour-long lectures to be interleaved with two hours of homework and individual projects. However, many professors are discovering that novel technology-supported strategies are producing higher levels of student engagement and lower drop out rates.

Advocates of active learning, inquiry-based strategies, collaborative teamwork and authentic projects make compelling arguments, but integrating these ideas with educational technology is a challenge. This essay offers a guiding framework (Relate-Create-Donate) and two specific approaches to integration of the web into courses (Encyclopedia Of and Open Projects).


Internet technologies of email, listservs, and the web are remarkable vehicles for thrilling educational journeys.

Students can communicate with each other and their professor between class meetings. They can ask for help from an individual or broadcast a message to everyone. They can seek input from appropriate sources anywhere on the planet and retrieve relevant information for their work from the vast resources on the web. They can publish on the web for everyone who is interested and get feedback to refine their work.

Teamwork is facilitated by easy communications and expected by the workplaces that students are training for. Since collaborative educational strategies are a novelty for many professors, evolution from familiar strategies is likely to be more acceptable.

Long-term projects are facilitated by the web since early stages can by viewed by team members, other students, outsiders, and the professor. And the great gift of the web is that users outside the classroom can get to see and use what students have produced. It is easy to ignore this gift, but I have found it to be a useful motivator for myself and my students. My educational framework is Relate-Create-Donate: students work in teams to produce something ambitious that is meaningful to someone outside the classroom (Shneiderman, 1998).

Relate-Create-Donate can encompass team projects in which students work on a research problem or on community service efforts on campus or beyond. A favorite project involved a team that was interested in computing for the elderly. They read the background literature and took computers to a nearby old age home for several weeks to explore alternate teaching methods. Then they wrote a report to the director of the old age home with recommendations tailored to local needs. Another project set up a database for a regional charity to track 23,000 donors and volunteers. These were special opportunities, but I propose two general-purpose strategies that have proved useful: Encyclopedia Of and Open Projects.

Encyclopedia Of

In fall 1993 I taught a web-based distance-learning video course with 12 students in front of me and 12 scattered across the country. I had the good fortune of having highly motivated graduate students and they grabbed on to the idea of creating the Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments (EVE) as a class project for the first six weeks of the semester.

I thought one hundred short articles in alphabetical order would be easy to generate, but the group discussion led the editorial committee to chose 40 longer articles assembled into three sections: Systems, human factors, applications.

Individuals and pairs signed up to write the articles and then review each other's work. A style guide helped keep the audience (undergraduate computer science students), citation strategy (1-5 per article), and terminology uniform. The first batch of articles was completed by the fourth week and the full set by the sixth week, but it took one more week to clean up the loose ends.

EVE proved to be a useful resource for students and soon attracted a growing number of interested readers who offered suggestions and compliments. After the course ended cybrarian Toni Emerson of the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Lab offered to host EVE on their web site. Their strong reputation in virtual environment research ensured that EVE would be well maintained and receive a continuing stream of visitors
( (Figure 1).

In a recent course on information visualization, my students constructed a resource guide about the eight categories of visualizations with pointers to research projects, commercial packages, citations, and videos for each category. Their Online Library of Information Visualization Environments (OLIVE, (Figure 2) was a six-week project by ten graduate students, and has remained as a useful resource.

The idea of a class-wide team project assembled from individual or pair efforts seemed a natural match for the web environment. Variant approaches include writing the textbook for the course, especially if it is dealing with an advanced subject. Marc Abrams of Virginia Tech had his students write an onweb textbook about the web (

Other possibilities are handbooks, guidebooks, or any compendium of resources. A Stanford French professor had students writing about campus sports in French and a Vanderbilt history professor had students catalog the philosophical foundations for the Declaration of Independence. The professor supervises the project and grades components (and the internal reviews), but the management by a student editorial committee and assistance in construction by a student technology committee (participants get extra credit) helps ensure that they have a strong sense of accomplishment and ownership. They are proud when the job is done and feedback arrives from outsiders.

Open Projects

One of the fears expressed about the internet is that student will use it to cheat by easily taking materials from other sources or by stealing from their fellow students. Many professors prohibit students from reading each others" work, but the web invites openness, so why not make projects open and even require students to read and critique each others' projects. This strategy grew out of my paper-based term-length team projects that had seven stages. When I proposed electronic submission by web construction, the 40 undergraduates were concerned that their projects could then be read by anyone. Some worried that the quality of their work might be poor, so we talked about how we might ensure high standards.

My template for papers was a starting point, but it was a natural step to suggest that students would sign up to review each others' drafts. Then they would send a two paragraph email to the team of authors and to me, with one paragraph reporting on what they liked about the draft, and one paragraph with suggested improvements. The 48-hour review period was followed by a 72-hour revision period and then I graded the reviews and projects. The review period had several benefits: students got to read another project and learn from it, the process of reviewing sharpened their eyes about problems in their work, and the feedback from 2-4 reviews gave them useful guidance in revising their papers.

The resulting papers seemed of much higher quality than in earlier courses ( and (Figure 3). Usually one or two had some publishable results but this time there were three or four. One of the projects was quickly accepted at an international conference and a student got to present it in Italy. Other advantages of onweb projects are that they include links to related materials, more extensive appendices, and even executable programs. Students in subsequent semesters have continuous access to all previous projects, not just the one or two that I might lend them from my files. Student feedback has been positive, but morecareful evaluations would be helpful to assess and refine these techniques.

While web construction skills may be more common among my computer science students than other student groups, the rapid improvement of page-making tools has made web construction not much more difficult than word processing. Even if the professor does not have the required skills,most problems should be handled by a student run editorial committee and a technology committee with more skilled students.


Exploring educational frontiers on the web frightens some professors and maybe even some students, but it can also generate unusual levels of motivation and pride in creating something new, important, and valuable. There are likely to be many routes to Relate-Create-Donate using more refined vehicles than Encyclopedia Of and Open Projects -- send me your URLs.

Choosing the right vehicles for distance learning or continuing education communities takes some thought, as does tailoring these ideas for larger classes, remedial courses, or those in which students have weak computing skills or scarce computing resources. As these information technology vehicles get used more regularly, highway patrol policies will have to be developed to cope with privacy, libel, inaccurate statements, and copyright.


Shneiderman, B., Borkowski, E. Y., Alavi, M., and Norman, K., (1998). Emergent patterns of teaching/learning in electronic classrooms, Educational Technology Research and Development (1998).

Shneiderman, B. (1998). Relate-Create-Donate: An educational philosophy for the cyber-generation, Computers & Education 31, 1 (1998), 25-39.

Shneiderman, B., Alavi, M., Norman, K., and Borkowski, E. Y. (1995). Windows of opportunity in electronic classrooms, Communications of the ACM 38, 11 (November 1995), 19-24.

Figure 1: The Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments was a University of Maryland class project in Fall 1993 and is now maintained by the University of Washington (

Figure 2: The Online Library of Information Visualization Environments (OLIVE) was a seminar project in Fall 1997 (

Figure 3: The undergraduate students created these open projects called Students HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) Online Research Experiments in Spring 1997 (

Ben Shneiderman is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, and Member of the Institutes for Advanced Computer Studies and for Systems Research, all at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is the author of Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction: Third edition (1998), Addison-Wesley Publishers, Reading, MA.

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