Every time you turn around, you see it mentioned--in newspaper articles, on business cards. Even TV news stations now boast that they're "on the Web." But the World Wide Web (WWW)--the Internet's hypertext "browse, search, and retrieve" system with multimedia capabilities--actually lives up to its hype, and what's more, it's reinventing how teachers and students use computer-based telecommunications.
While the Web per se has been around for a while, the graphical user interface of Web "browser" software, such as NCSA Mosaic or NetScape Navigator, has finally broken the text and interface barriers that kept even computer-savvy users intimidated and off the Net. Armed with a good browser, you can navigate to myriad Web sites with the click of a mouse button and access millions of Internet documents featuring text, graphics, sound, and links to other sites. Click on a highlighted word or picture and you'll find yourself connecting to related resources from networked computers anywhere in the world.
For example, a Web document in California about the Antarctic might link you to the "Live From Antarctica" multimedia resources for teachers and students sponsored by NASA; reports of ozone depletion over Antarctica from a scientific site in New Zealand; a hypermedia exhibit with journal entries, photos, and audio recordings made during a "Grand Antarctic Circumnavigation" cruise; and copies of The New South Polar Times, an online newsletter written at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. You and your students can download copies of those resources, revisit the sites for more information, and follow additional links around the globe.
The power of the Web's linking capabilities is well developed already. When it comes to multimedia, however, limitations in the technology mean that these aspects have not fully matured. Technically, it is quite possible to have animation and even video among the elements in a Web document. The reality, expecially if you're using a modem and phone line as your delivery system, is that even high-resolution still graphics seem to take "forever" to load, and interactive multimedia is so slow as to be unrealistic. But as telecommunication speeds increase, so will the multimedia impact of the Web on education.
Web browsers also incorporate traditional Internet capabilities that enable users to exchange electronic mail; log in to distant computers (telnet); download remote files to their own machines (FTP); follow newsgroups; and use navigation tools such as Gopher, Veronica, and WAIS (see "The Internet: Bringing Global Resources to the Classroom," in the October, 1993 issue of Technology & Learning for a more thorough explanation of these terms). But instead of wrestling with cryptic commands and steep learning curves, the World Wide Web puts a friendly face on the Internet and simplifies its use through a single interface (see sidebar).
The Web brings unlimited world resources to the classroom and the classroom to the world. Schools everywhere are scrambling to climb aboard. Little wonder that it has become a "killer application"--a use for computer technology that in itself justifies its purchase.
Connecting to the Web
The multimedia features of the Web require lots of memory and processing speed, so to connect even a single computer you need a high-speed link to the Internet, either through a direct connection or fast modem (14.4 Kbps--14,400 baud--is the minimum today, although most people expect 28.8 or higher to be required before long). You also need special SLIP/PPP communications software, and the fastest and most powerful computer you can afford. That means at least a multimedia 486DX or Pentium machine in the PC world, or a 68040 or PowerPC machine among Macintosh models. If you're connecting individual machines to the Web via a modem, you'll want to get machines with at least eight Mb of RAM--16 Mb is recommended for processing video--and a large hard drive, preferably 500 Mb or more. …