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NEWSLETTER: VOL II, # 7, APRIL 3, 1998

Developing Hypertextbook Material for Geography and Geology Courses

Professor Keith Montgomery
Department of Geography and Geology, UW-Marathon County

In Spring 1997, I implemented the GEO350 (Resource Conservation) "HyperTextBook" at UW Marathon County as part of the web pages of the local Department of Geography and Geology. Through it students have access to a wide variety of WWW links arranged by topic, information on assignments and exams (often involving the use of these links), as well as the usual elements of a course syllabus.  I implemented a similar project for GEO123 (Weather and Climate)  and Freshman Seminar in Fall 1997, and I am currently developing one for GLG101 (Physical Geology).

For GEO350 my main objective in using the "web" was to increase opportunities for critical thinking as one of the goals of the course.  Specifically, the web let me enable students to examine first hand the social and political considerations that influence decisions on environmental issues.  I had often found environmental textbooks to be too dismissive of increasingly influential "anti-environmental" groups and I thought that it would be best to study their points of view by critically examining their views as they express them for themselves in their web pages. Therefore, in addition to many general links on each topic, I have tried as much as possible to present a diversity of views.  Assignments then asked the students to examine these views. Many students are surprised that such organizations exist, having been generally lead to believe in their prior education that environmental science and policy or legislation are one and the same thing.  Therefore using the web increases their political awareness.

There were two assignments that worked in slightly different ways.  First, the class viewed a PBS show on Nuclear Power and then visited the show's webpage for further information and to participate in a national e-mail discussion on nuclear power through the site;   second, the class read recent articles in The New York Times  and Wall Street Journal that were critical of recycling programs and could then find instructive critiques of these articles on the webpages of a national environmental organization. Both of these aided instruction on critical thinking. Incidentally, this year I have found that the latest editions of texts take "anti-environmental" groups more seriously.

I can't say that this project was all plain sailing.  I learned some valuable lessons in using the material. Given that only a minority of my students have access to the Internet at home, one has to be very selective in the use of material on a "commuter campus," because students don't like being tied to working on campus by a course exercise (so it was difficult at times to ensure preparation).  I found that students required more guidance in critical thinking and evaluation of opinions than I had anticipated (hence the value of the PBS e-mail discussion and critiques of news articles, in addition to classroom discussion).  On account of the "easy" access to a wide range of material, I had required too much reading and preparation (i.e. I was too enthusiastic).  I had also discovered that many students don't like (or can't) simply be told to go somewhere to find instructions for exercises or tests (contrary to the popular image of technology teaching, they still like that personal introduction and hard copy!).  Therefore, this spring I have been a little more selective in my use of web materials in this course.

In fall 1997, I used web resources again for GEO 123. It seems as if the Internet was invented for Weather and Climate studies (In fact UIUC's Department of Atmospheric Sciences was one of the first educational sites on the 'net, which may not be surprising given that browsers were first developed at UIUC)!

Using web resources in weather and climate studies has been very successful .  My objective in using them was to bring real time data into labs rather than just use old data sets. One example involved the study of ozone depletion in the Antarctic. In the past, I lectured and discussed the topic in the month of September (when the phenomenon at its most intense).  We then had to until November to read published reports on the season, by which time the topic has generally been diminished in the students' minds (the test has passed!). This year we could access data by altitude almost on a daily basis and "see it" happening as we were studying it. We saved the .gif files and later animated them to provide an excellent record of what had happened over the previous three months. Another example involved calculation of wind speed and direction in the upper atmosphere. Again, in the past I had used old data ("classic" data), but this fall we could obtain raw data from 6:30 a.m. that morning and work it up. We could then study the evolution of the circulation over the next few days.  I eventually animated the results and the students could visualize concepts much more clearly. Finally, as in many weather and climate courses, I could use links to access real time weather data and a variety of other instructional materials.

I am presently developing similar pages for GLG101. These have proved useful for information on earthquakes, among other things.