WWW: Strengths & Weaknesses

David R. Woolley (drwool@skypoint.com)
Mon, 5 Jun 1995 15:04:05 +0100

Thanks for inviting me to participate in this conference, Terry.

Is the World Wide Web ready for serious distance education delivery?

I approach this question with some trepidation. It's always dangerous to
claim that something cannot be done. It's particularly so with the Web,
which is evolving so fast that even those of us who work with it every day
find our heads spinning. I might confidently say today that such-and-such
can't be done on the Web, only to wake up tomorrow and find that somebody
has done it.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between what's *possible*, what's
*practical*, and what's actually *useful* to do. It's easy to get caught
up in the hype and the frenzy of the moment, and forget to ask "Does this
application really make sense?"

Before we get into specifics about using the Web for distance education, I
want to step back and take a big-picture look at where the Web excels and
where it doesn't do so well.

What is the Web, really?

Well, it's an interface to the Internet. And what is the Internet? It's
a worldwide network designed to ship files reliably (though not
necessarily speedily) from one point to another.  It's basically a
trucking service: stick an address label on a file, throw it on the
truck, and it will probably get to it's destination sooner or later.

To this basic service, the Web adds:

    * an easy-to-use interface
    * hypertext links between documents
    * a limited ability to format documents for display
    * integrated viewing of images and sound

What is the Web good at?

Because of the Web's design, and the design of the Internet underlying it,
there are certain things that it excels at:

    * Cheap, fast publishing and distribution.

The Web is a self-publisher's dream come true. Once you have set up a Web
server (or bought access to one), publishing documents is trivially easy.
Essentially, the only cost is for writing the material. The Web makes the
cost of publication and distribution negligible. What's more, published
documents become available instantly across the world. You can send out
updates every day, or every 15 minutes if you like.

    * Hypertext links.

Nothing else has ever made it so easy to branch from one document to a
related document. In fact, it is almost *too* easy. While surfing the
Web, the temptation to see what's behind that next link can be so strong
that you never quite settle in and actually read what's in front of you.
Forgetting what it was you were looking for is a common malady.

    * Platform independence.

Web browsers and servers are available for all of the most common hardware
platforms. For the less common ones, there is always the fallback of using
a text-only browser. Thus, a document published on a Unix workstation can
be viewed on a Macintosh, a Windows PC, or even an old Commodore 64, with
no extra effort on the part of the publisher.

    * Ease of use.

The point-and-click interface used in graphical Web browsers makes it
extremely easy to use. Even text-only browsers are pretty simple. (Note
that this ease of use doesn't necessarily extend to setup, though!
Installing and configuring Web software for use through a SLIP connection
can still be a nightmare.)

        *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Okay. These are all substantial strengths. Now, what is the Web *not*
so good at?

    * Multimedia.

But wait! Isn't multimedia what got everyone so jazzed up about the Web?
Yes. And compared to the pre-Web Internet, things have improved
enormously. You could always send sound or images over the Internet, of
course, but in the old days you had to download a file, then manually
start up the appropriate program for viewing it, load the file into the
program, etc. Now the images just pop up on your screen automatically!

But bandwidth is a severe problem. If you're lucky enough to be on a LAN
with a high-speed Internet connection, the Web looks fantastic, but using
a 14,400 BPS connection the images tediously c-r-a-w-l on to the screen. A
CD-ROM is *much* faster - and if you've tried many CD-ROMs, you know that
platform still leaves a lot to be desired, as well.

    * Page layout.

Creators of Web documents have very little control over the appearance of
their pages. This is not just a deficiency, it's deliberately designed in
to the Web. The HyperText Markup Language (HTML) designates structural
elements of a document, like "heading" or "emphasis", and leaves it up to
the Web browser to display such elements however it likes. True, there are
HTML tags for bold and italics, but purists frown on these. In general,
it's impossible for a Web page designer to even know how much of a given
page will fit on the viewer's screen, where graphics will appear in
relation to text, etc.

In addition, there is no accepted method for displaying vector-based (line
drawn) graphics on the Web.  Vector graphics are the fastest way to
transmit simple diagrams, because rather than sending a complete bitmap,
it is only necessary to send a list of points.

The Web is evolving toward giving more control to document designers, but
even the not-yet-standardized HTML version 3 only improves matters a
little. Designers of computer-based training (CBT) materials have usually
relied heavily on having complete freedom to design exactly how each page
should look.

    * Interaction.

Aside from hypertext links, the Web is really pretty lousy at interaction.
Web "forms" provide only a few styles of interaction, and very little control
over how those interactions work.

It is extremely difficult for the server to maintain status information
about a particular user. The Web is designed to service discrete
transactions: a user requests a file, the server ships it, then the
connection is broken and the server forgets all about the user. To
overcome this, an application has to resort to arcane tricks to pack all
the necessary status information into every transaction between the
browser and the server.

Finally, the handshaking that goes on between the browser and the server
makes every interaction seem terribly slow. Most of us have grown used to
getting instantaneous response when we press a key on our computer. By
comparison, using the Web often feels like trying to swim through molasses.

Despite all these difficulties, many software developers are heroically
creating sophisticated interactive applications on the Web, such as
conferencing. It *can* be done! But the Web is fundamentally hostile to
such efforts.

        *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

After all this, you might get the impression that I can't stand the Web.
The truth is, I find it really exciting. I think its potential has only
begun to be discovered, and I'm putting in long hours building a Web-based
Free-Net for my community. In the long run, I expect most or all of my
complaints about the Web to be resolved.

But it's important to be realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of
the Web as it exists today. When you're considering possible solutions to
a problem, try not to be dazzled by Web hype. Instead, think clearly about
what you're trying to accomplish, and whether the Web truly fits your need.