Joel Crisp, ETS, University of Bristol
Currently, there is much excitement about the World Wide Web. The Web, a global hypertext system, is rapidly becoming the largest consumer of Internet resources, and one of the most useful ways to explore and search for information.
There are two prime reasons for its success. The first is simplicity, in that anyone can learn very quickly how to supply information over the Web. The second is its visual appeal, making it highly attractive both to new computer users and to the business world (for advertising and services).
People are now starting to realise some of the limitations of the Web. It is very difficult to present anything other than pages of text and pictures. The facility to ask the user to enter information, whilst very useful, is also very limited. Businesses, users and academics are all realising that something more is needed.
Fortunately, SUN Microsystems has an answer. They have created a new way of programming called 'JAVA'. JAVA is an object orientated programming language, similar to C++, which has one rare capability. JAVA can be 'embedded' in another program, and used to control and extend that program. This is similar to the modern programs from Microsoft, MS-Word and Excel, which have 'Visual Basic for Applications' (VBA) built in. However, the important distinction between VBA and JAVA is that JAVA has been designed to make it VERY hard to write Viruses.
Most of you will have heard of the recent scare about 'Macro' (VBA) viruses in MS-Word documents downloaded from E-Mail. SUN have spent a lot of time and effort in designing JAVA as a language which cannot be used to write viruses. The means the user can download and run programs from the Internet via World Wide Web in almost total safety.
At first sight, this does not sound too dramatic. However, Marc Andressen of Netscape Communications was quick to realise the possibilities. He licensed the technology from SUN, and was quick to incorporate it into the latest version of the Netscape Web Browser.
Combining Netscape, the most popular Web browser, and JAVA has given the power to the Web to do anything a normal program can. This includes complicated interaction such as tabulated option boxes (a la MS-Word 6) and 'clever' forms which adjust to the user's input immediately. It also allows for animation, real-time links (such as the Stock market prices ticker that SUN use as a demonstration), multi-user connections between browsers (such as conferencing systems), and so on.
Soon, we will start to see all sorts of complicated programs appearing as part of the Web browser. The possibilities for education include timed tutorials and computer assisted exams (similar to the Bristol-developed Tutorial Mark-up system), animations, 'virtual microscopes' which allow the student to adjust the controls and see different views, and tutorial authoring from within the Web browser.
However, all of these facilities come at a cost. JAVA is not as easy to use as the simple HTML and requires a skilled programmer. Initially, this will limit its use to those prepared to learn to program it. However, as more 'utilities' are developed, programming in JAVA will become a bit like building with LEGO. Authors will be able to pick and choose from a large number of pre-defined effects, and just enter their own data, much as they would with CALScribe or MS-PowerPoint.
So, in conclusion, JAVA is coming, it is going to be big, and it will allow us to make the Web and the Internet a much more useful resource.
Watch this space!
Educational Technology Service
University of Bristol