the Technology Interface / Spring 1998

Teaching Internet Publishing

Kang Sun, Ph.D.
School of Engineering Technology
Northeastern University
Boston, MA 02115


Among the three classes I taught in the winter term of 1998, Internet Publishing is most enjoyable and effective both to me and to my students. It is successful because of the constant interests of the students, the term-long projects they were doing, and the hand-on experiences they have had.

The Setting

Here at Northeastern University School of Engineering Technology, a course called Industrial Software is offered in every winter term to juniors and seniors. For the 1998 winter term, I decided to teach Internet Publishing.

First I need to set up the environment so that students can have a home, a Web home. I created an account for each of the 24 students on a Linux box running Apache Web server. I configure the server to give students the privilege to use common gateway interface (CGI) and to overwrite their own subdirectory settings. The Linux box is a Pentium 100 with 16 MB RAM and 2 GB hard disk, and I am glad to report that it is sufficient for twenty-some simultaneous login and web accessing.

I chose to use my own server for ease of control of the server's behavior. Although all the students can create web pages on computers of the university and the college, but they usually are not granted the privilege to run a CGI scripts, which is a su bject we need to learn and practice. I chose Unix platform for ease of access for students, who can work on their pages anytime anywhere as long as they can dial-in or remote login to my Linux server. I also need the privilege to set up the environment I want for the students. For example, I made available a program called event so those students can write a form and a CGI script calling it. Finally, I need to be able to retain some of the good work of the students on my computer.

The Policy

I made it clear at the beginning of the term that I wanted a term-long project: every student has to create a web site by the end of the term. Their Web site has to incorporate materials covered in the class. They can get a good grade if they meet the following requirements:

Since this class is about Internet, I like, together with my students, to exploit and utilize the Internet resources as much as possible. I decided to use the tutorials available on the Web for HTML [1], tables [2], frames [3], forms [4], CGI [5], Java [6] and Perl [7]. These tutorials have shown to be very effective.

The Class

We have three sessions per week. For the two classroom teaching sessions, I brought in a laptop running Windows 95 and a video projector to class room so I can go through the tutorials and demonstrate effects of new tags on-line. Northeastern Universit y has wired almost every classroom with Internet. The third session was taught in a computer laboratory where students had a chance to apply what they learned on their pages with instructor around.

Most of the students knew how to surf the web, but were new to create a web page of their own. They were enthusiastic in learning. My task is to keep them motivated.

After a couple of sessions on the history and capability of Internet and getting familiar with the Unix environment, we immediately started the tutorials on HTML and created our first pages. "Now," I told them, "anyone in the world can read your pages as long as he or she knows your home page address and has access to the Internet. The question is what do you want them to read and see!" This really make them feel achieved and being serious about their pages.

The majority of the students in my class were co-op students with some industrial experiences. In order to know our students better, the School of Engineering and Technology started to collect resumes from students. Naturally, the first homework assign ment was to ask the students to create a home page with their resume.

Later on, as we learned more, I asked students to present a version of resume using table and a version of resume using frames. Once they learned how frames work, they can present whatever they like as long as they used frames. Some students are very c reative. One student likes cars and he designed the left panel of the frame as index and right frame to show a picture of the car being chosen.

"HTML is nothing but a collection of tags that a browser can follow to render special effects on your screen." As long as students are motivated, they can explore more by themselves.

To keep up the interests, at the beginning of every class I tried to come up with some "tricks" that I learned by scanning through various books on HTML. One such "tricks" is how to use the so-called client-side pull to create automatic slide show. Ano ther application of this technique is the redirection of Web page addresses without modifying the server's configuration file.

Web publishing involves more than just HTML. Apparently we cannot cover everything about CGI, Perl, Java, Javascript, etc in one term. I demonstrated how the CGI work with a Unix program I wrote many years ago. Event looks at a couple of databas e files and echoes important events and celebrities' birthday happening on a given date. I wrote CGI interfaces in C, C-shell, and Perl. Student can present a form requesting month, day and year. The form will be sent to a CGI program, which calls even t and presents the output back to the browser in HTML format.

Finally, I talked a little bit about the server configuration, in particular about access authorization and directory indexing.

At the end of the term, most of the students built a fancy Web site. Frankly, some of them are far better than mine. All [8] except two met my entire requirement. They told me that they have fun and also learned a lot in this class.

Further Thought

Students learn most effectively if they are interested in the subject of learning. It is also the most difficult task for teachers to maintain students' interests on subject of teaching. Unfortunately, most subjects are not like Internet Publishing< /I> that is fashionable and highly demanded. Still, I think it is a good idea to have a term-long or semester-long project that incorporate every piece of materials covered in class gradually, step by step and class by class. Such project has to be intere sting, useful, and complete, so students know what to expect to achieve and have a place to apply what they learned after every class. The challenge is to come up with good projects. For the spring term I am going to teach Java and C++, I welcome suggesti ons on projects that uses all the major features of object-oriented language. Remember, such projects have to be interesting and useful!


[1] Introduction to HTML
[2] Table Tutor
[3] Frame Tutor
[4] Form Tutor
[5] CGI for non-programmers
[6] Java Tutor
[7] Perl Tutorial
[8] Student pages