Conquer the Web with Beads&String

Putting an established lecture course into a Web-based format can involve dozens or even hundreds of hours of collecting good content, organizing it into a coherent set of resources, and building a student-friendly site. Too often, some of the best materials on the Web are not designed for undergraduate use: They might be too broad-ranging, too complex, or too specific. Some may be copyrighted and not available for use without permission. Then there is the labor of actually developing a Web site that looks professional and is easy to navigate. It seems everyone is working independently to reinvent the Web wheel. So, instructors ask, why aren't there easier ways to build an online course? And why don't professors work together on these issues?

Robert S. Stephenson, associate professor of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, decided to address these questions after creating an online version of his physiology course several years ago. Wanting to find a better way and believing strongly in the open source model that programmers use, he began working with other interested teachers to develop teaching materials and tools for physiology. Dubbed the Harvey Project, this alliance of educators, researchers, physicians, students, programmers, instructional designers, and graphic artists is dedicated to building and distributing free, rich content—dynamic, interactive materials—for teaching physiology.

"I could see that we needed a new paradigm, a collaborative model that would allow physiologists around the world to create and share the best course materials," says Stephenson. "Creating rich content requires so many skills and so much time that faculty must collaborate if they are to participate in a meaningful way. Online course development is an area where, as the saying g'es, we must all hang together or we will all hang separately." According to Stephenson, some project members contribute content they have developed, some their domain expertise, some their programming or graphic design skills, some their suggestions and peer reviews.

One Harvey project undertaking is to develop a searchable database of the hundreds of physiology teaching sites on the Web. When Stephenson finds something worthwhile during his searches, he writes to the author and invites him or her to join the Harvey Project. From that basis, there are now 100 members of the project in 15 countries.

The principal goal of the Project, however, is to address the lack of quality resources for online teaching. Project members are creating 40 pieces of rich content for physiology teaching—40 learning objects are currently under development, including simulations, animations, 3-D models, and interactive quizzes.

Everyone on the project donates his or her time, and everything they create is available free of charge for educational use. Stephenson feels that it is important to encourage a culture of collaboration and sharing—well established in research arenas but less common in teaching. One of his primary goals is to develop teaching resources such as these that are free and available to all. "Otherwise," he says, "they will be developed commercially, and access to them will be limited."

The Harvey Project is also creating tools to simplify the task of building online courses. The Beads&String tool allows instructors who are relatively inexperienced with technology to build Web-based presentations in a slide-show-like format. Beads&String allows a teacher to arrange Web pages in a particular sequence to create a presentation, lecture, or module of an online class.

Think of the separate Web pages of an online presentation as the beads. The tool creates a sequence, or string, that holds them together. It isn't necessary to know HTML coding to use the tool. According to Stephenson, the end result looks something like a PowerPoint presentation but with Web pages as slides.

"Since Beads&String runs in a standard Web browser, it can accommodate any sort of rich content that can be put on the Web," he says. "The tool is easy for instructors to use, but it also helps students because it creates a linear sequence for following a lecture or presentation from end to end. It's less confusing than a set of links on a page, and much more flexible."

Beads&String may be used free of charge by anyone. Stephenson and his collaborators are currently working on a "content browser" that will will make the experience of assembling Web-based lectures and presentations still easier.

Stephenson practices what he preaches. Lectures in his online course, www.science.wayne.edu/~bio340, are based entirely on Beads&String and incorporate rich content developed by the Harvey Project as well as many Web sites from the project's database.

Student reaction to the Beads&String format has been positive, and they particularly appreciate the interactive nature of the material.

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