About Stephen's Web

River near Salisbury, New Brunswick, taken on a recent bicycle trip.

Purpose and Origin

Founded in 1995, Stephen's Web is best described as a digital research laboratory for innovation in the use of online media in education. More than just a site about online learning, it is intended to demonstrate new directions in the field for practitioners and enthusiasts.

Specifically, the design of Stephen's Web is intended to embody the following new directions in online learning:

- Integration of Learning, Practice and Research - it is the author's belief that learning in an online environment will gradually merge with other domains of activity, and specifically, practice and research. Consequently, Stephen's Web merges these three uses of online content into a single space.

- Integration of Content and Community - it is the author's belief that content and community - that is, the presentation of content and consequent discussion of content - should be presented as an integrated unit and not segregated (as is typical in learning management systems).

- Content Syndication - a single online learning resource is depicted on this view as one node in a network of resources, whereby these resources exchange content and services among each other. This outcome is achieved by means of content syndication and supported throughout Stephen's Web

- Dynamic Organization - learning, and the presentation of learning, should not be static. On any given day, the organization, structure and delivery of learning resources may change according to the changing knowledge of the instructor, the changing nature of the field, and the changing preferences of the learner.

A more detailed description of the underlying pedagogical principles embodied in the site may be read in the presentation, Learning Objects in a Wider Context, available in PowerPoint.

Technical

It is worth remarking that Stephen's Web was entirely built by hand by the author over a number of years in order to embody features and characteristics not available in commercial software applications. Specifically:

- Server Environment - Stephen's Web runs on a standard Apache server installed on a Linux server platform. Some applications use a MySQL database engine. This configuration is free, open source, and available as a standard Linux distribution.

- Software - All server side software on Stephen's Web is written in Perl 5, an open source programming language also available in standard Linux distributions. Additional software is written in cross-platform Javascript.

- Browser Requirements - Stephen's Web is intended to be broadly compatible with a wide range of browsers and has been tested successfully with all versions of Internet Explorer, Netscape, Opera, Mosaic, Safari, Galeon, Konquerer, Firebird, Lynx, WebTV (emulator), and more. No plug-ins or proprietary software is required to access Stephen's Web. The dynamic parts of the site have been configured to operate across firewalls and caching environments.

- Navigation - All navigation in Stephen's Web is text-based, providing full accessibility. Stephen's Web content is also CSS compliant.

- Development Environment - All Stephen's Web content was created with a text editor called NoteTab (selected because it outputs programming code in Unix-compatible format without the Microsoft-specific CR tags at the end of a line). MySQL configuration was done using ZDE, an open source database management tool. Graphics and photographs were edited using PaintShop Pro. WS-FTP is used to upload files to the website. Microsoft format documents, such as PowerPoint or Word, were created using the appropriate Microsoft software.

Organization

Stephen's Web offers two major navigational aids, a top-level navigation presented at the top of every page, and home-page navigation, offered in the left column of the home page.

Top-level navigation provides the following links:

- Home - returns the reader to the home page. The home page contains the navigation just mentioned, a front page photograph, a lead article (see articles, below) with current discussion (see discussion, below), syndicated content (see news, below), and a statement of principles at the bottom of the page.

- News - takes the reader to the current issue of the site newsletter, OLDaily, a newsletter authored five times weekly. For more, see Newsletter, below.

- Chat - takes the reader to a synchronous HTML chat room intended for casual conversation. The Chat area has evolved into a graffiti wall.

- Discuss - takes the reader to the discussion area. For more, see Discussion, below.

- Search - takes the reader to a website search.

- About - Takes the reader to a page describing the purpose and organization of the site.

Home-page navigation is organized as follows:

- About Stephen, About This Website - This section provides links to information about the author, some of his interests, and personal touches.

- Today's News in OLDaily - takes the reader to the current issue of the site newsletter, OLDaily, a newsletter authored five times weekly..

- Research Topics, Research Wiki, Code - links to the research work of the site author.

- Publications, Papers and Presentations - Refers to static content on the website, and is divided into Publications, Presentations, Calendar, and Photos. This section also offers access to Research topics. For more on Research, see news, below.

- Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies - link to my Guide to the Logical fallacies.

- Other - Home-page navigation also provides links for RSS feeds (See syndication, below) and contact information.

Newsletter

The site newsletter, OLDaily, is an example of what would today be called a blog. Stephen's Web was the world's first educational blog, beginning in 1998 with dated links and commentary. The current version, OLDaily, was launched in May, 2001.

OLDaily is authored using a custom content management system (see Site Management, below). Links submitted are stored in a database. The newsletter is generated automatically as HTML content, text content, an RSS syndicated feed, and Javascript syndication.

All four versions of OLDaily are available as email subscription newsletters. OLDaily has (at the time of this writing) about 1450 daily subscriptions and 650 weekly subscriptions. RSS traffic accounts for about 10,000 hits per day. The News web page generates about 1,000 hits per day. OLDaily readers may subscribe via a subscription form; this creates a user account that allows them to manage their subscriptions or unsubscribe.

Links in OLDaily provide, in addition to a link to and description of an external resource, three unique features: Refer, Research and Reflect. Refer allows a reader to forward an individual link to one or more email addresses. Reflect allows a reader to comment on the link, automatically creating a new discussion topic if necessary (see Discussion, below).

The Research option takes the reader to a page about the link. From this page, the author may explore other links by the same author or publisher. All links are automatically and dynamically categorized, and these category links are displayed. The reader may also access the research system, which provides lists of all authors, publications, and categories.

For more about the Newsletter, please see About OLDaily

Discussion

At first glance, the discussion area in Stephen's Web appears to be a typical discussion list. Discussions are organized into topics, and a list of comments follows each topic. However, discussions in Stephen's web are tightly integrated into other parts of the website.

As mentioned above, a new discussion topic may be created automatically, if necessary, by a reader on submission of a comment using the Reflect link. Discussions are also generated automatically for articles.

Individual discussion topics may be syndicated to other pages. This may be seen on the home page, where the discussion entered into the Discussion area is displayed dynamically on the front page. Using Javascript feeds, a discussion on Stephen's web may be displayed on any page in the World Wide Web.

Because discussion is so easy to view and use, Stephen's Web has an active discussion community, the members of which have created hundreds of topics and posts over the years.

For more about the Discussion area, please see About Threads

Articles

The articles section of the website contains the various writings by the author on the topic of online learning and related fields. As mentioned above, the five most recent articles are displayed on the home page. A link on the home page provides access to a list of all articles.

Articles are displayed dynamically using a Perl script. In addition to the text of the article, the page may display an article summary, excerpt, and author information (the latter feature is not used on this site, because there is only one author). Discussion generated about the article, and available on the discussion list, is displayed immediately below the article, along with a form for the submission of additional comments.

Syndication

Stephen's Web supports syndication in a variety of ways. Two major technologies are employed:

- RSS - this is an XML format designed for news syndication. In recent years it has become widely popular, though Stephen's Web has offered RSS syndication for about five years.

- Javascript - this is a technique relatively unique to Stephen's Web (it is not available, for example, through most blog software applications). Javascript syndication involves the creation of a server side script on the downes.ca website, which is then called from a remote page anywhere on the web.

Stephen's Web is continually experimenting with syndication techniques. As of the time of this writing, the following syndication features exist:

- Links - as mentioned above, links listed in OLDaily are available for use in both RSS and Javascript format. Stephen's web also uses a Javascript feed generated using the same software but located on an external site, NewsTrolls, which is displayed under the heading ‘In the Ether' on the home page.

- Discussion - all discussion topics are available for syndication using a Javascript feed. This feed is used to display discussion on article pages. RSS syndication for discussion is planned, but not in operation.

- Referrers - a technology unique to Stephen's Web (though now used by thousands of sites world-wide, the referrer system (which may be viewed at the bottom of the home page) automatically detects and tracks incoming links from third party web pages using a set of syndicated Javascripts. When server logs were disabled last April because of traffic, the referrer system was generating 500,000 hits per day. Referrer traffic is now the subject of an NRC research project being led by Daniel Lemire. For more, see the Referrer System page.

- Edu-RSS - this subsection of Stephen's Web is what is known as an RSS aggregator. It gathers syndicated RSS feeds from about 85 sites worldwide, stores them in a database and displays them as a daily feed (updated hourly). Edu-RSS is able to input any type of RSS feed, Open Archives Initiative, and plain XML. It provides output as HTML, RSS, and web services. Sites and readers accessing Edu-RSS may create very specific and customized category-based feeds (please note that some features of Edu-RSS are scheduled for launch in mid-July).

- DLORN - not yet accessible from the main site, DLORN (Distributed Learning Object Repository Network) is a system intended to incorporate the syndication technologies demonstrated in Edu-RSS for educational purposes. Please note that DLORN is a work in progress.

Content Management

Stephen's Web is managed using a custom-built content management system. More details and code to be released soon one day.

Content on Stephen's Web is divided into projects. Currently, only two projects are defined, though other sites using the same software (see below) define ten or so projects each. On selection of a project from the list, the manager views the main editing screen.

The navigation along the bottom identifies the major types of web content. Any content element may be located using 'search' or 'list' and edited using 'edit'. On entering the edit window, a template-driven edit screen is displayed.

Dynamic content is displayed using custom code in the edit windows. In addition to system parameters, which are coded using, for example, #TITLE#, dynamic database enquiries are generated using the 'keyword' command, which allows the manager to retrieve and display database contents. Managers may also include reusable content using the 'box' command.

Impact

Though it may not be the prettiest site on the web to look at (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the site uses larger fonts, consistent and text-based navigation, and fast-loading HTML), Stephen's Web is arguably one of the most important and influential websites in educational technology today.

The articles, publications and presentations - of which there are more than 400, dating back to 1995 - represent the state of the art in online learning and related issues and technology. These articles are widely cited (proof of which is provided via 'Cite' links to Google searches).

Thousands of educational professionals worldwide use OLDaily and Stephen's Web as their primary professional development tool. This is evidenced not only by their discussion list contributions but also through the hundreds of emails sent to the author.

The technologies tested and demonstrated on Stephen's Web have, in some cases, achieved a world-wide impact, changing points of view not only with respect to online learning but with respect to online media generally. From the course designs described in the mid-1990s to learning objects to RSS, blogging and learning environments, Stephen's Web is - and has been since 1995 - today what online learning will be in the future.