John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
If you have developed the habit of periodically scanning the contents of the WWW using one of the numerous search engines (Anon column, 1996, no 2), you are probably aware of the rapid rate of growth of material deposited on one of the thousands of servers which make up the Web. There is a relatively high probability that you have asked yourself how (or if) some of that content can be beneficial in your profession. I conducted an experiment with a course in Physical Geology that I taught in the fall semester of 1995. What started out to be a few exercises on the Web (an introduction to search engines and visits to Volcano World soon evolved to more than I had expected. Although I tell myself that I have not produced a course that could be distributed or delivered asynchronously, I have thought a lot about how Web materials can impact higher education and continuing education. Mechanically, it is relatively easy to produce Web resources Deciding how to take advantage of the Web and avoid a "broadcasting" or formal lecture style, however, proved harder than I originally thought. Part of the dilemma seemed to be tied up in the question of why should I bother to use the Web. "Futurists" tell me that a 22 year old will face an average of 6 career changes in the next 42 years. During the past 10 years I have written many letters of recommendation for former geology students who desired admission to law school .... an MBA program .... a teacher certification program, etc. Many, but certainly not all, of these former students were faced with a career change. Will the 22 year old in 1995 attempt to earn a formal degree to make his or her career changes in 2002 or 2009? I donıt think that is realistic. Skills developed during formal and informal learning experiences will add flexibility but will that be sufficient? I believe that education is and will continue to evolve away from today's norm and that the Internet (or the granddaughter of the Internet) will play a prominent (if not dominate) role in its evolution.
The second question in my mind is who will develop the content that can be distributed on the Web? At the present time examples can be found of a number of approaches that are being used.
Several individual instructors are beginning to put course material on the Web. A partial listing is given at the World Lecture Hall. This is a good first stop to get an appreciation for the variety of courses and the diversity in presentation style and format. Courses listed at the World Lecture Hall are nominated by their developers and thus represent a somewhat biased sample. A somewhat extensive but certainly not exhaustive search for geoscience courses on the Web found 45 courses related home pages. Results from this survey will eventually be stored at the ANON home page. Approximately half of these courses are little more than a repository of course descriptions, a syllabus, and usually the e-mail address of the instructor. Geology 202 (Petrology) at the University of British Columbia however, evolved from an initiative to explore the effectiveness of the Web in distributed education. The Society of Exploration Geophysicists is sponsoring the development of an Introduction to Exploration Geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines. If you have never examined the potential of the internet in education, this would be a good site to visit at length. For those of you that did such a course with pencil, paper and a hand calculator (slide rule), the experience may leave you feeling .... why not back then?
In addition to the role of college instructors in preparing content for the Web, there are other initiatives that involve both individual and organization commitments to providing content in the form of facilitating communication.
There are several news groups (such as news:sci.geo.geology that provide a forum for discussion. Phil Ingram provides a monthly posting to this and other news groups of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) which is an extremely useful compendium of well organized information about geoscience resources on the internet. Bill Thoen and Ted Smith maintain Online Resources for Earth Scientists (ORES) which is another good place to start. These individuals typify the development of content on the Web by volunteering, along with others, to maintain these resources.
The Geoscience Information Group (GIG) provides a Mailbase list for geoscientists who wish to share information and correspond with each other via distributed e-mail. The Very Low Grade Metamorphism (VLGM) group facilitates communication by maintaining a "news group like", threaded set of discussion topics. The United States Geological Survey maintains (through a volunteer program) Ask-A-Geologist which is aimed at a wide audience. Several of my students received thoughtful responses after less than 48 hours.
Also increasing in abundance are online Earth Science Journals. If you havenıt taken the opportunity to ³surf² an electronic journal try this resource. Thus, a quick perusal of the Web reveals that a great diversity of individuals, organizations, societies, professors, and other volunteers are producing resources. The common factor seems to be the recognition that the individual or group can add something that is of value to others.
A survey of the readers of Computers & Geosciences (1995, v. 21, no. 5) has been transformed into a semi-searchable Expertise and Interests database (http://www.nsm.uh.edu/anon.database) readers by their research interests. Fewer than 45 readers responded so the utility of the site is questionable at best. However, you can request a copy of the survey at the URL given above. This, I believe, would be a useful contribution to the scientific community. If you have not responded please take this opportunity to do so.
Another project that I believe makes sense is the creation of a Virtual Poster Session. I envision a number of relatively short resources which might focus on a new research project (something that might be hung on a wall at the AGU or GSA annual meetings), an introduction to a topic of general interest (Markov Chains, for example), a state-of-the-art presentation on a selected topic (trend surface analysis, for example) or a historical perspective on some subject that the author has been involved with for some period of time. These resources could be used in a variety of ways; part of a formal course or a short course or as stand-alone introductions to a particular subject. If any reader has something to contribute , please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to everyone who has commented on the column. Our goal is to provide coverage of a variety of subjects and we welcome suggestions for future columns.
Since January 27, 1997