Web-Based Utilities for Learning and Collaboration in the Classroom

Instructors seeking to integrate technology into the classroom to promote learning are often in search of new techniques and tools that take advantage of students' natural interest in, and excitement about, technology.

The domain of Web-based utilities (WBUs) is exactly where these tools may be found. The defining characteristics of WBUs are:

  • They are obtained and accessible on the Web
  • The software is typically stored on the producer's server, but some require downloading of all or part of the utility
  • They offer potential for collaborative development activity
  • They are free or low-cost.

With features that improve on standard Web browsers, WBUs—sometimes referred to as "Web apps"—are actually designed and marketed as productivity improvement tools. While WBUs are geared to productivity improvement, however, they also have potential as teaching tools, specifically to promote collaborative work and resource sharing. Students are likely to find WBUs interesting and challenging to work with, which encourages them to actively engage with the course material. Interestingly, both the library where I serve as director and the online courses I teach serve as "labs" for experimentation with the educational applications of WBUs.

WBUs fall into several categories. Three in particular have real potential for facilitating shared and collaborative learning among students: online storage services, also known as Internet hard drives or Internet file storage; Internet bookmark managers; and Web page capture and organization. Let's examine how each of these utilities can be applied in a classroom setting to develop dynamic projects that incorporate Web-related research.

Online Storage Services (OSS)

Also known as Internet hard drives or file storage, these mostly free services are like a virtual hard drive, an extension of your computer's hard drive, on the Internet. The OSS exchanges files between home and office, and even remote computers, and provides as much as 100MB of storage space. A listing of OSS services can be found at www.webwizards.net/useful/wbfs.htm.

One feature, which allows users to designate "friends" who are able to access each other's stored files, is a tool for encouraging student communication outside the classroom. Students can conduct joint research or prepare for presentations by sharing files and creating projects together. Any designated file can be accessed by any student, updated, and put back into storage. Several students can work on the same file, although not simultaneously.

However, some of the glamour of collaborative file storage services, particularly in higher education, has worn thin. While it is still highly desirable to have access to files from any connected computer, file exchange among students is now available through popular course management software tools (such as WebCT and CourseInfo). Instructors who lack access to such software may want to use the file-sharing properties of an OSS.

Internet Bookmark Managers (IBMs)

Think of the IBM as your browser's bookmark list, stored on a remote server that belongs to the bookmark management service provider, instead of on your local hard drive. The key advantage of maintaining an Internet bookmark repository is that your bookmarks can be reached from any connected computer.

Imagine that in the midst of teaching a class, you suddenly remember a Web site that would be a perfect example of a concept you're trying to get across. If this site were bookmarked on an office computer, it would not be accessible; but with an Internet connection, that bookmark is instantly accessible. Whenever you find a site you want to bookmark, you can save that site to your Internet bookmark manager from any connected computer. Some of the IBMs offer features for organizing bookmarks, adding bookmarks with just a few mouse clicks, and importing and exporting saved bookmarks.

Backflip.com is a good example of an IBM that offers all these features, and encourages opportunities for collaborative student projects. Consider a class that creates an IBM of content-related Web sites. The instructor would need to open an account for the class that all students can access, then demonstrate how bookmarks are added. Students could add bookmarks from any connected computer. Backflip also allows any individual user to make bookmarks public and share and exchange bookmarks on related subjects. With its "Show and Tell" feature, students can create and share bookmark folders on course-related topics, enabling them to work in teams to identify and organize Web sites, a collaborative activity well suited for distance learning courses. Many IBMs offer similar features; a list is available at www.webwizards.net/useful/wbbm.htm.

Web Page Capture Utilities

In some ways, Web page capture and organization utilities are enhanced forms of bookmark sites. Both allow a user to store and organize Web pages for retrieval at a later time. But Web page capture services make actual pages available quickly, simply, and offline when needed, and provide added-value services. While most page-capture utilities will catch almost any Web page, pages that use advanced scripting languages or Web design elements (such as Java clients or Flash) may present difficulties.

Several Web page capture services are worth mentioning for their potential in collaborative projects. iHarvest will capture virtually any Web page that will display in a standard browser. The pages can be organized into folders and assigned keywords to facilitate page retrieval. Once pages are captured, notes or annotations can be added. An especially nice feature is the ability to e-mail the captured pages. They can also be viewed offline, and with an added piece of free software, can be managed with handheld devices.

An instructor could create a project requiring students to find, organize, and share Web pages using a communal iHarvest account to create organized collections of Web pages. Imagine a project in which students create a "Webliography" on an assigned topic. More than a listing of URLs, it is a collection of the actual pages' content, annotated and organized by the students.

Whereas iHarvest is completely Web-based and free, two other Web-page capture utilities can be downloaded from the Web for a fee. Webforia Reporter captures Web pages for online or offline retrieval. It could be described as a more sophisticated version of iHarvest. The presentations it creates are more tutorial in nature, and they can be viewed offline or mounted onto a Web site. A faculty member could use Webforia to develop a guided tour of Web sites on a specific topic or a more fully annotated tutorial on using Web sites to gather information. Greater sophistication usually requires a steeper learning curve, and Webforia is no exception. Examples of tutorials created with this tool can be found on the Webforia Web site, or at www.philau.edu/library/tutorials.html (view the electronic business research tutorials).

One drawback of Webforia is that it is packaged for the individual user and may be less amenable to collaborative applications. TourMaker is software designed specifically for educators, and offers site licenses so that students can work with the software. As the name suggests, faculty and students can use it to create "tours" of Web sites. The software creates an annotated presentation that can be used to showcase Web sites with information and resources on specific subjects. Web tours are as easy to create as finding a Web page and clicking to add it to a tour. Each page in the tour can be annotated. The tour creator can change the position of pages within the tour, as well as add and delete pages as needed. The ability to delete a specific page without needing to rebuild an entire tour is critical, as Web pages will frequently change and tours need to be updated. Examples of tours can be viewed at the TourMaker Web site at www.tramline.com/tm.

Consider Web page capture software as a high-tech alternative to simply giving students a list of URLs to visit. Students can be assigned to create their own annotated Web tours as a more dynamic version of projects that require students to identify and write about Web pages on specific topics. Most of the capture utilities will allow for varying degrees of student collaboraton. There are other approaches to achieving Web page capture, which should be differentiated from screen capture. Where screen capture tools (such as Snag-It, Hypersnap, ScreenSeize) typically capture a region or entire display screen, Web page capture software catches the entire screen, even if there is a scroll bar, and usually keeps the text links active (when viewed online).

Faculty who routinely perform in-class Web site demonstrations will also be interested in Web page capture tools like Webforia. They make it easy to capture Web content for offline viewing, eliminating the need for live, and sometimes unreliable or slow, Internet connections.

Potential Barriers

There are, however, some concerns and consequences to consider when instructors and students use WBUs: access, registration and privacy, training and support, subscriptions, and control issues.

Access. First and foremost, do all students have equal access to Web-connected computers, at home and on campus? If they don't, a WBU-based project may not work.

Registration/Privacy. If you plan to have students register for a WBU, they will need to supply private information for an account. Although it is unlikely, there is always the possibility that some students may refuse to do that. Also, check to determine whether your institution has policies regarding connecting student accounts to non-institutional support services. Is there any language that would prohibit this sort of activity?

Training and Support. It is almost a certainty that your campus information technology service will not support students who have questions about these utilities. Are you prepared to be the sole source of support? The WBUs are fairly easy to use, and the online help is good, but there will still be questions. Begin by devoting a class session to using the WBU.

Subscriptions. Free WBUs are best, but some good WBUs may require minimal annual subscription fees. Can students be required to pay for these services? Your perspective may be that subscribing to a WBU is no different than requiring students to buy books or supplies.

Control Issues. You have no control over WBUs, especially free ones. They can go out of business without a moment's notice, start charging fees, change their interface or features, or otherwise wreck your well-devised project plans. If possible, choose WBUs with good track records for reliability. Do some research before making the choice.

Looking Ahead

Whether or not an idea for a WBU project came to you while reading this article, you may still want to begin exploring these utilities to increase your own productivity. In time, you may discover a way to introduce your students to WBUs through a course-related project, or consider introducing a colleague to them. It can be more enjoyable to learn how to use new resources when you have someone with whom to share your experiences. WBUs are nowhere near as difficult to learn as software packages, and with practice, experimentation, and occasional e-mails to technical support, expertise will be achieved rapidly.

Some utility experts are predicting that many of today's WBUs will be integral features of future browsers. For example, Internet Explorer currently has a crude Web page capture capability that, with substantial improvement, might rival some of the page capture utilities. Future versions of browsers may even have connectivity for WBU features such as online storage or bookmarking. Beyond these basic prognostications, little is known about where WBUs will be headed in the future.

If my interaction with WBU companies is any indicator, these resources are little used in higher education at the moment. However, I think there is a bright future for WBUs in conjunction with academic applications. Once instructors begin to understand WBUs better and to develop their own applications of them, WBU producers—whose current focus is the corporate market—may turn more attention to the higher education market and produce utilities that can really serve the needs of educators looking for an innovative technological teaching tool.

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