The Web as Forum:

It's Not Just for Surfing Anymore

PROPONENTS of the Internet (and computer networking in general) have long touted its use as a forum for discussion and as a marketplace of ideas and information. The World-Wide Web most certainly fits into this claim, and in terms of use in the education community, the Web can be a superb basis for virtual debate and discovery. As noted earlier in this paper, the Web is the result of the evolution of the Internet into a more user-friendly environment. All of the original uses of the Internet - including file transfer protocol, e-mail, USENET news and gopher - continue to thrive in the context of the Web. If anything, they have now converged into a singular informational tool, for the latest generation of Web browsers, such as NetScape, are capable of interacting with the full suite of Internet protocols.

Because many Web browsers can now interpret gopher, ftp and news commands, as well as send e-mail, it is conceivable for a Web designer to utilize all of these services to create a multimedia/hypermedia discussion on any given subject. As a basis for such discussions, many Internet users have traditionally used e-mail accounts for a service commonly known as listserv (also known as a listprocessor or simply as a list). Technically, listserv is the name of an automatic mailing program that can run on any Internet server. A listserv setup allows anyone who has access to a server to form a discussion group. People join the discussion by sending a subscription message to the listserv computer. From that point on, they will be able to receive and post information to the listserv, which will then distribute the information to everyone on the list.

Listservs have been used in a variety of ways, from Peter Gabriel fan clubs to cancer recovery groups. Recently, some organizations have even used listservs to run virtual conferences, where literally thousands of people sign up to an on-line discussion and take part in a week-long forum, all without leaving their home or office. On a more local level, numerous college courses now require registration to a private listserv, so the professor and students may exchange questions and other information outside of the classroom. With the inclusion of the World-Wide Web, however, listserv use can take on a whole new meaning, for some people are now tying their Web sites into an on-line forum. Additionally, there are also public domain software packages which convert e-mail text to HTML and automatically add the text to a Web site (MailToHTML, Hypermail, etc.). So as a webmaster adds new sections to her site and people begin to discuss these changes, the entire conversation can be automatically integrated into the site itself.

For educators interested in hypermedia technology, this combination of presentation (the Web) and critique (listserv e-mail) can be used successfully in a variety of ways. For instance, a physics teacher may organize a Web site which includes all class lectures, frequently asked questions, and multimedia presentations of experiments which may utilize text, graphics, even audio. With the inclusion of a listserv, students may automatically add information to that site, whether it be additional questions, project reports, essays, etc. This arrangement efficiently stores important class information and organizes it to allow easy access. In this case, the students do not even need to become experts in HTML - the mail-to-HTML converters take care of that for them.

Additionally, web-savvy programmers are now using a protocol known as Common Gateway Interface, or CGI, to write programs which allow Web wanderers to fill out on-line forms and have their information processed in a variety of ways. For instance, some sites have developed what are commonly known as grafitti walls or scrawl wall. When a user enters a grafitti page, they can fill out a form with their comments on whatever that Web page is about; the CGI program will then automatically tack their message onto the page itself, so future site visitors will be able to read the comments.

Unfortunately, most grafitti sites live up to their namesake - instead of being places of open commentary, they're used as online soapboxes for people who just like leaving obnoxious messages. In fact, the use of a scrawl wall in education is still quite rare, since most designers view such sites in a negative light. But their potential cannot be ignored. Outside of education one can find some interesting examples. For instance, The Right Side of the Web, a conservative political resource, has created a question of the week with scrawling capabilities. Users can read a question, as well as any previous comments on it, and then add their own remarks to the collection. No matter one's political affiliation, the Right Side of the Web's use of interactive CGI clearly demonstrates how such technology can be used to generate discussion in cyberspace.

On an advanced academic level, students can use the various Internet technologies to create their own hypertext work, such as a Web-based processfolio, and then present it on-line so that their peers and instructors may discuss and critique it. Learning how to critique other's work and to present a persuasive, constructive argument are skills that are often slowly gained for many students, for it is rarely taught in any formal fashion. Yet if a teacher wishes to implement processfolio assessment into the classroom, students must become comfortable with voicing their opinions, as well as accepting constructive criticism. Recent research now suggests what many educators have claimed for years - some students just aren't comfortable with talking in class. On-line discussions, on the other hand, are easier for some, since the form of communication changes from one that is interpersonal (live and in class) to one that is cyberpersonal (over e-mail, Web forms, etc.). And because conversation is on-line, it can be automatically catalogued and presented by the student as part of her processfolio. Granted, good old fashion class discussion will not, and should not vanish with the advent of on-line class forums. But allowing students to work with each other and learn from each other will open the minds of many students who previously would not voluntarily open their mouths.

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