At Toronto, we have been using the web to deliver information to Physics undergraduate students since September 1996; for the 2000-2001 academic year we delivered 1.2 million web documents to these 1500 students.∗
In 1997 I introduced the term encapsulated as a way of classifying the type of information that was being delivered [Harrison, 1997]. Briefly, encapsulated information:
• Has only a few “quanta” of information.
• Exists in an already known context.
Encapsulated information can be read effectively on a computer screen; for most readers non-encapsulated information is best read as hardcopy. This distinction effects the way in which a document should be prepared and delivered to the student.
More recently I have used the same taxonomy as an aid in thinking about what actually happens in a classroom. This has helped somewhat in approaching a question that has bothered me for decades:
I know that students do not actually learn in a lecture, but something related to the learning process is clearly occurring. But what is it that is happening?
Another change since I last wrote about this topic in 1997 is that, at least in Toronto, we can now assume that all students have at least medium-speed access to the web. In part this is because the University of Toronto has invested significant resources to make web access available at the libraries, residences etc. Before, our use of the web was usually viewed as a supplement to the more traditional delivery methods. Now it is often the only method that is used.
In this paper I shall first review, update, and extend the concept of encapsulated information and the delivery of information on the web. Next I shall discuss how I have
found the concept of encapsulation to be an aid in thinking about effective classroom presentation. Throughout, phrases such as “most people” or “many students” indicate that different pedagogy works for different teachers and for different students, and that there is no single prescription that works for all. Also, the word “blackboard” below includes whiteboards.
∗ A “document” can range from a small table of specifications for a particular voltmeter to a many-page set of class notes. In total we delivered 36 Gigabytes to our undergraduates last year.
Recently a “Home Page for Every Course” initiative was launched by the University of Toronto. This hardly makes Toronto unique. As such programs proliferate, it is important for all educators to understand the principles of good web page design. For some years Jakob Nielsen [Nielsen, 1995 – 2001] has been writing a regular web column on these issues which are an invaluable resource. In this section we discuss only one aspect of this huge topic: delivering documents via the web. Issues such as classroom education, distance learning and related topics will be examined in the following section.
Above we defined encapsulated information as information that has only a few bits of information and that the information exists in an already known context. Examples include:
• The date, time and location of a test.
• The email address of a professor.
• The accuracy of a particular voltmeter that has been used by the student in a lab experiment.
One may anticipate that documents providing such information can be effectively read on a computer screen.
For most people, non-encapsulated information, such as contained in supplementary course notes, is read more effectively as hardcopy. In the next section we shall speculate as to why this may be true.
When I discussed this issue with students in an upper-year University liberal arts course in September 2001, the majority of the 100 students were already keenly aware of the distinction, and expected to print non-encapsulated information for their own study. Thus, the suggestion I made in 1997 that perhaps this “new” screen-based medium can eventually be effective for all information has still not occurred. Note that beginning students often are unaware of this distinction, and left to their own devices will make poor decisions about whether or not to print a document to read it.
For delivering encapsulated information to students, the human factors of good web page design are paramount, so that the desired few bits of information can be quickly found. We shall not discuss this important topic.
For non-encapsulated information, when the web is used properly it is only a replacement for the Xerox machine, but with the following benefits:
• The information can be updated virtually instantaneously. For example, I regularly update a supplementary document after a class in which questions or comments from the students have indicated where improvements may be made.
• Xeroxing such material always leads to either not enough copies or too many copies of the document. In the former case, the student must wait until we run off more copies. In the latter case, trees have been needlessly sacrificed.
• For many documents, putting them on the web can generate a surprisingly large traffic from people other than the students for whom they were initially prepared. We maintain a Physics Virtual Bookshelf in Toronto and I get emails of compliments and questions from around the world a few times a week from people who have found the site. The URL is http://www.upscale.utoronto.ca/PVB/PVB.html.
The default language of the web, html, is a poor choice for delivering non-encapsulated information that will be printed. This is because different browsers and choices of default fonts mean that the author has no control whatsoever over page breaks, etc. This can be particularly problematic for documents with large html tables or lots of figures. The difficulties can be so severe that parts of the hardcopy of some html documents are impossible to read.
A common and effective choice for documents that will be printed is the Portable Document Format (pdf) from Adobe (http://www.adobe.com/). The Acrobat Reader necessary to read such documents is free, and the Adobe Acrobat software required to produce them is fairly inexpensive.
Converting an existing html document to pdf with proper page breaks is often only a matter of interactively adjusting table widths and inserting a few
tags into the document, “pouring” the result into Adobe Acrobat, and viewing the result. I often make both html and pdf versions of the same document available to my students.