Do It Yourself Courseware: How We Built a Reusable Web Platform for Studying World Cultures

Given the increasing proliferation of non-scholarly information on the Web, a great demand exists for tools that can help students rapidly sort good information from bad in pursuing undergraduate studies. However, many academic departments are not equipped to design course Web sites that require some programming and the use of more complex technology.

The Rutgers University History Department and the Scholarly Communication Center (SCC) of Rutgers University Libraries have been experimenting with platforms in which more complex and functionally sophisticated Web-database technology can be reused by designing generic software functions and a generic database as part of the overall architecture.

We developed a platform for collecting and cataloging Web sites for an undergraduate course on the culture and history of Italy. For this type of course, there is a wealth of historical information on the Web that can be used in a classroom setting. However, students have difficulty finding the content, evaluating it, and using it effectively in their studies. The Italy's Peoples course provided both a pedagogical and technological framework to assist the students in this process.

The technology framework, or platform, for Italy's Peoples has been generalized so that it can easily be customized without programming knowledge for any group of people to be studied. A completely operational platform can be downloaded from the SCC Web site by those who are interested in using the technology for a similar course or application.

The Course
As part of the course in Italy's Peoples, the students were assigned an Internet project (15 percent of the course) in which they would collect Web sites that deal with the culture and history of Italy. The students typically used popular search engines such as Google or AltaVista to find appropriate Web sites, although they could also use online catalogs such as OCLC's WorldCat. The students were required to find quality sites that would increase their understanding of the subject while also enhancing their Internet searching skills.

The Italy's Peoples course has been offered twice at Rutgers by Professor Rudolph Bell of the History Department. He also offered the course a third time in the Fall of 2002 while serving as a visiting professor at the University of Colorado. In these three courses, over 500 Web sites were collected, reviewed, and annotated. The site and the collection are at www.scc.rutgers.edu/ italy'speoples.

The Technology and the Platform
The SCC is a technology-based Center within the Rutgers University Library that is developing innovative approaches to learning, teaching, and digital access through several diverse partnerships and projects. Professor Bell and the SCC Data Librarian, Ronald Jantz, developed an architecture for the Web site that has three major components: 1) "Add a Web site" for students to classify their Web sites and enter the associated record into the review database; 2) a capability to search and browse the public database; and 3) an administrative subsystem for the professor to view, evaluate, and approve student Web sites submitted to the review database. Once approved the professor can move the records to the public database.

In developing the platform for Italy's Peoples, we used Macromedia's ColdFusion product (a middleware scripting tool) and Microsoft's MS-Access for the database. The major components of the system are depicted in Figure 1.

The capabilities of the system have been generalized and incorporated in a working platform available at www.scc.rutgers. edu/scchome/technical/platform/wp_platform.htm. All references to a specific course, institution, or professor have been parameterized and represented as "include" files in the basic Web site. These files are used to display the following information on the Web: 1) title of Web site; 2) front page image and image citation; 3) introductory text for the Web site; 4) professor's name and e-mail; and 5) credits and acknowledgments. These five files are correspondingly labeled and can be easily edited with standard word processors in order to customize the site.

Databases and Subject Classification
As shown in Figure 1, there are two MS-Access databases, a review database and a public database. Both contain an identical table labeled "Web sites." The "Web sites" table contains bibliographic information for each Web site that is submitted by a student. Typical fields in this table include the site name, site URL, subject classification, and contributor. In addition, the public database contains a table labeled "Subjects," which is used to describe both the subject classification system and the screen layout for both adding Web sites and searching the public database.

Figure 2 shows a portion of the screen layout that is used in the site for World's Peoples. To create or modify the subject classification system, the instructor will only need to specify the major and minor subject areas and the column in which they appear. Editing the subject classification scheme can be readily accomplished by selecting the Instructor's page ("Instructor" on the navigation bar of the World's Peoples home page).

The Process
After installation of the Web site and database is complete (see section on "Availability and Installation"), the professor can introduce students to the Web site and the basic capabilities. The following are the essential steps:

  1. Students find and select Web sites (using a Web search engine) and classify these Web sites according to pre-selected subject areas. Figure 2 shows a portion of the screen image that students use for subject classification. The student will also annotate each Web site to not only clarify the content, but to add additional free text terms to improve recall of the records when searching and browsing the public database.

  2. The student submits each Web site with subject classification and textual descriptions to the professor's review database.

  3. The professor uses the administrative capabilities of the platform to review, evaluate, and edit the student-submitted records. In Professor Bell's experience with teaching the Italy's Peoples course, he found that a majority of the records required editing in order to provide consistency of classification. For example, a student might select a URL that dealt with Galileo
    (www.newadvent.org/cathen/06342b.htm), which was found in the Catholic Encyclopedia (www.newadvent.org/cathen). In this case, Professor Bell might suggest that the more general source (the encyclopedia) be selected with proper annotation to note the article on Galileo. Once edited and approved, the professor will move the appropriate records to the public database. This action automatically deletes the record from the review database. The professor must also re-index the public database by selecting the "re-index" link on the review page. This action insures that full Boolean searching capability is available for all the text annotations provided by the students.

  4. Once the record is in the main database, students (or anyone on the Web) can search by pre-selected subjects or by any search term to find and review Web sites that have been submitted by the class. The subject classification scheme used for adding a Web site is identical to the one that can be used for searching (see Figure 2).

Availability and Installation
The generic platform for this application is available as a free download from the SCC Web site at www.scc.rutgers.edu/scchome/technical/platform/wp_platform.htm.

Once the file has been downloaded and unzipped it can be installed "as is" in the Web root of an NT server running Microsoft's Internet Information Server and ColdFusion Server 4.0 (or higher). The public database and the review database are MS-Access databases that are identical in definition, with one table labeled "Web sites," which contains all the bibliographic information for each Web site selected. These two databases should be administered as ODBC sources using the ColdFusion Administrator.

In addition, a Verity collection should be created and the database indexed via the professor's administrative interface. In the platform, the public database is populated with a selection of records from the Italy's Peoples course so that prospective users can test out the site by searching and browsing some of the records. To customize the Web site for a particular course, the NT administrator, working with the course instructor, would only need to copy the site, rename the Web appropriately, and modify the five files as discussed above. No programming or knowledge of ColdFusion is required. A readme file providing detailed installation instructions is included in the Web root.

Reusable Software
In the software industry, platforms are considered one of a class of reusable software entities including objects, subroutines, code segments, and complete systems. Platforms typically are operational subsystems that provide complete functionality and require small modifications or additions in order to customize the platform for a particular application. One frequently finds the platform concept in other industries such as automobile manufacturing in which the same engine or chassis is used across many different models. This type of reuse can dramatically improve quality and reduce the time and complexity of creating products to satisfy different types of markets.

Probably the most difficult aspect in the initial design of this platform was the subject classification system. In the first offering of the Italy's Peoples course, we did not use a prescribed system as shown in Figure 2. In effect, the students' Web sites were classified by the text annotations they included as part of the description of the Web site. We found that this approach led to widely varying approaches by the students and, as a result, very inconsistent and unreliable search capabilities.

In the second offering of the course, the team of Professor Bell, Ronald Jantz, and Brendan Banks spent considerable time discussing different approaches to subject classification. Our primary criteria was that the classification scheme had to be broad enough to cover all likely scholarly subjects to be encountered on the Web regarding the subject of Italian history and the culture of its peoples. A second and a somewhat conflicting criterion was providing an uncomplicated scheme that could be readily mastered by undergraduate students in a single-semester course.

We ultimately devised a two-level system consisting of 12 major subject categories and allowing the possibility that each major category might have perhaps as many as 10 or 15 minor categories. Our final constraint was one of user interface design in which we wanted to be able to present the complete classification scheme on a page that would generally fit on a computer screen without scrolling. In the second offering of the course, Professor Bell required the students to use this new approach to re-classify some 400 Web sites that had been developed in the previous course. The initial classification scheme underwent further refinement as students classified each Web site. At this point, we feel that the subject classification scheme is reasonably stable although we do expect that additional subject areas will be added in future courses.

In evaluating Web sites, the professor will typically encounter a problem with what we have called "gateway" sites. These sites offer a variety of information and could be submitted as one URL or the student might submit many of the lower level URLs separately. To help address this problem, we have included "gateway" as a minor subject heading under some of the major categories. For example, in Figure 2, the reader can see categories of "history—gateway" and "government—gateway."

Quality issues will always occur, given the different perspectives of professors, librarians, and students. Our subject classification system was created to emphasize scholarly aspects, although students frequently preferred some of the more practical Web sites that dealt with entertainment and transportation. What to include is one of the more interesting aspects of incorporating the Web in scholarly communication. In teaching a course like Italy's Peoples, the professor has an opportunity to help students understand the type of information available on the Web and how it may be used to further a student's education.

We encourage our readers to view the Italy's Peoples Web site or to download the operational Web site platform at www.scc.rutgers.edu/scchome/technical/platform/wp_platform.htm. If you decide to you use this platform, we would like to have your feedback and suggestions and an acknowledgement of your use.

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