Re: WWW: Helper Applications

Murray-Rust Dr P (pmr1716%GGR.CO.UK@vm.ucs.UAlberta.CA)
Wed, 7 Jun 1995 13:22:05 +0100

On Tue, 6 Jun 1995, David R. Woolley wrote:

> 1. The helper application has to be distributed to every user, who must
> then go through an installation and configuration step before using your
> Web site.
> 2. Platform independence - one of the Web's great strengths - is lost or
> compromised. Since a helper app runs on the user's own computer, it has to

        Absolutely right.  We have been very fortunate in that Roger Sayle
who wrote RasMol has ported it to the 3 major platforms (X, PC, Mac).
Similarly Dave Richardson, who wrote Mage , has done the same and ported
it to X specifically for the course.
        Part of our course was on the *technology* required to be a
'student'.  Students were expected - with the help of a special mailing
list - to:
        - be able to connect to the WWW
        - be able to mail
        - download software and install it
        - install RasMol and Mage
The standard of the discussion on the *technical* mail list was extremely
high and essentially the course carried out an effective self-help
operation.  Probably we lost  a few who *couldn't* get it to run - or
didn't have the time - but it was certainly a great success.
        It's noteworthy that both these appliactions are few, therefore
widely used and 'debugged'.
        We were quite clear that we couldn't expect 'students' to pay money
for helper applications.

> 3. Writing a helper application is not simple!  It's a breeze to create
> HTML documents - the language is easy to learn, and there are a growing
> number of easy-to-use HTML editors that will do most of it for you. But
> creating a helper application is a full-fledged programming task.

        Absolutely right again!  That's one reason why we chose protein
structure - because the helper apps were there.  We couldn't have (and
still cannot) do the same thing for organic chemistry.  (We're trying to
put that right but it will take time.)

> Sun Microsystems has introduced a new language called Java for writing
> helper applications, and an accompanying browser called HotJava. Together,
        IFF Sun will port this to the major platforms - fine.  But this
business of developing first Soloaris (not X) doesn't help.
        I'm a great supporter of tcl/tk which I see as the
low-and-medium-level hope for graphics/window portability.  Developed by
John Ousterhout at Berkeley, it's free, widely used and JO has now joined
Sun where he is porting it to all major platforms.  Scheduled some time
this summer.  It's a wonderful tool for part-time programmers if
performance isn't the ultimate goal.

> But even when Java-capable browsers are available for Windows and the
> Macintosh, my third point will still be an obstacle. It will still be a
> complex programming job to write a sophisticated helper application.

> I am very impressed with the description of the protein structures course
> at Birkbeck. It sounds like a very creative and innovative use of
> technology. I hope it doesn't seem too cheeky to ask Peter or Allan how
> much it cost to develop and administer this course.

        Birkbeck has supported Alan's salary and a modest amount of
hardware.  Everything else is voluntary.  The cost to many of us has been
the tolerance of our loved ones and the destruction of social life!  But
we were always clear that it was a prototype - great fun to do - and
enormously rewarding in non-materials.  Essentially 'from each according
to their enthusiasm!'  I regard it as my major part-time activity - some
people go windsurfing, others paint pictures, other go to the pub.

> Now I understand that cost often isn't a primary concern in a research
> project like this - the point is more to see what can be done.  Also, I
> understand the difficulties involved in pushing the edge and doing
> something for the first time. So maybe a more relevant question is this:
> now that you have done this once, how much would it cost to develop and
> administer your next course using similar technology? Let's suppose this
> new course is in a different subject - architecture, say - that requires
> new helper apps to be developed.
        Excellent question.  It's clear from the PPS experience (and from
the earlier C++ course run by Marcus Speh) that completely volunteer
courses are unpredictable.  C++ are collecting themselves for a re-run
and I'm not sure whether they've got critical mass; there *is* enough
        I think volunteer courses probably need to do something new each
time and to be based on something where there is easy alternative.  New
technology (e.g. ours), social issues that people feel strongly about,
things that map onto major interests.  (one recent suggestion for our
Virtual School Of Natural Sciences is a course in Astronomy - this
appeals to me).
        We are intending to see how and whether the current PPS course can
be developed on a cost-effective basis.  There is no doubt that a lot of
people value the accreditation that conventional courses bring and are
prepared to pay for it.  This also brings a degree of commitment which
isn't always there in the virtual courses (the Web is *very* ephemeral at
present and of the 'offers of collaboration' I get - not just in
education - only about 10-20% flourish.  So I think that this will be a
major feature of many virtual courses in the future.

> What I'm trying to get at with this question is whether, given the current
> state of the Web, the strategy used for the Birkbeck course is a cost-
> effective method of teaching.
        First - I am insistent that the quality must be top-class.  The
great advantage of the Web - at present - is that you are completely open
to peer-review all the time.  If someone gets their facts wrong - or is
simply out of date - it will get picked up within hours.  When I used to
be a lecturer I could give awful lectures and no one except me and a
handful of students knew.
        Second - the material is re-usable.  This must be taken with care,
because it's easy to recycle material year after year.  I know that the
OU cannot afford to remake material nearly as often as they would like.
But the material is re-usable both in time and space - i.e. it is
reaching throughout the world at present.  Much of what is in the course
(e.g. how to use technology, databases, and quite a lot of the basic
science) can be re-used in a year's time.

        I am aware of correspondence courses where the 'student' gets just a
parcel of material and an accredited exam.  This could be regarded as
'cost-effective' in that it shows a profit for the institution.  Whether
it's good education depends on each case.  I am sure that we shall see a
plethora of such cases.  It's technically straightforward for us to
bundle the present cousre and offer it in such a way.

        IMO the course members got very high quality material, a high
quality of discussion and contact with world leaders in the discipline.
If these are taken into account the cost-effectiveness was very high.


Peter Murray-Rust   44-1438-763338 T  "Nothing exists except atoms and empty   44-1438-764918 F   space; all else is opinion" Democritos.
Biomolecular Structure, Glaxo Wellcome, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 2NY, UK