Language Learning & Technology
Vol. 1, No. 2, January 1998, pp. 7-13
Dynamic Web Page Creation
Virginia Commonwealth University
Plug-ins and Applets
While Web pages are beginning to behave more like interactive applications, traditional authoring tools are themselves becoming Internet-savvy, primarily through the use of "plug-in" versions of players which integrate with Web browsers. The most commonly used plug-in today is Macromedia's "Shockwave," used to Web-enable such applications as Director, Authorware, and Flash. "Shocked" Web pages can be very interactive and provide a visually appealing means of interacting with users (as in some sample ESL exercises from Jim Duber).
Plug-ins are easy to use -- they just need to be downloaded and installed. Some come bundled with Netscape and Microsoft's browsers, which simplifies considerably the installation process (and gives developers the confidence that most users will actually have the plug-in installed). Plug-ins are not themselves tools for creating Web interactivity. They simply provide a means to put on the Web applications created by traditional authoring systems. The extent to which plugged-in programs are integrated into Web pages or are Internet-aware (so that they can exchange information with a Web server, for example) varies considerably.
The big name in terms of Web interactivity is Java, a programming language about which there has been a huge media buzz for the past two years or so. Using Java makes it possible to create small applications (applets) which, like most plug-ins, are seamlessly integrated into a Web page. In fact, Java can be used to create stand-alone applications as well. Its appeal is its portability to different computing systems (not just standard desktop operating systems), its built-in Internet connectivity, and its relative ease of use (for programmers!). Java is being widely used in disciplines such as physics and statistics to create real-time simulations on the Web.
The power of Java comes at the cost of having to learn a full-fledged programming language, not something to be recommended for the casual Web author. There are, however, ways to take advantage of Java without having to program. There are collections of Java applets which allow for use of applets to do such things us create scrolling banners or animated buttons. Such applets can be used to spice up a Web page, but they don't really tap into the enormous potential of Java for creating a dynamic learning environment. Fortunately, there are some ways now developing for harnessing the full power of Java. There are "drag and drop" Java editors such as the recently released Java Studio from Sun or Symantec's Visual Café. Another option is the use of template systems such as J-BAT, a tool under development for creating Java-based quizzes for language learning. Java has great potential for creating sophisticated, network-aware applications, especially real-time collaborative environments and interactive graphic applications. One of the side benefits of Java for language teachers is its capability of using Unicode to display many different character sets.
elements on a page such as radio buttons, checkboxes, or text fields. It used to be that the only way to get at the data from a Web form was to use CGI (Common Gateway Interface). This involves writing a program (most commonly in Perl) which resides on the server and goes into action once a user has submitted a Web form. The CGI script takes the data from the form and typically analyzes it, stores it (in a file or in a database), and sends feedback to the user in the form of a Web page. It is particularly useful for creating collaborative learning environments such as discussion forums.
Dynamic HTML and Style Sheets
A major addition to the HTML language which enables dynamic access to page elements is Cascading Style Sheets, a standard endorsed by the W3 Consortium as "CSS1." Style sheets allow Web authors to control globally -- even across an entire Web site -- the appearance of elements on a Web page. This creates a "dynamic object model" (DOM) allowing user or programmatic access to page elements. In a stylesheet definition, a page element such as a header (with an HTML tag like "<h3>") might be initially defined to display as bold and green, but through a user action or a scripted function could be changed to italics and blue. This kind of interactivity is all local, not requiring any communication with the Web server once the page has been displayed.
What's the benefit of using dynamic Web design in language learning? Many of us have tapped into the rich array of authentic linguistic and cultural Web sites that have sprung up in recent years. To have such a treasure chest of materials in multimedia-capable format available in a networked, cross-platform format is a tremendous teaching and learning resource. Add to this the ability to integrate our own learning materials and create Web pages which transparently link local resources with sites half-way around the world, and we are talking about a very rich and dynamic environment for language learning.
To get started in this area, the best approach is to first explore sites offering
To get a sense of how one might use some of these interactive Web technologies in actual language learning, here are some examples:
CGI (traditional, server-based interactivity)
- French Grammar Exercises from the University of Texas at Austin
- Crossword Puzzle in French from Richard Loubejac (Manchester)
- German 311, advanced German class using CGI-based discussion forums, home page creation, and homework submission forms
Java (applets integrated into Web pages)
- English-Japanese KANJI dictionary from Tatsuja
Java 101 basics from ZDNet
Introduction to Java tutorial from IBM (Windows only)
Java Tutorial from Sun (all platforms)
Java World on-line periodical
Applets, downloadable Java applets from Sun
Java Applets Pack, applet collection from techweb
Java Test Generator from Purdue
ESL, Spanish, Educational Object Economy from Apple
Java Applet Rating Service tracks new applets
Earth Web Chat easily builds Java-powered chat
Jamba commercial Java templates
JDK, Java Developer's Kit from Sun
Emblaze Creator tool for delivering streaming media and presentations through Java
Dynamic HTML and Style Sheets
W3 Consortium Microsoft Netscape Other
Netscape Commuincator or Navigator 4.0 or higher needed
Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher needed
Dreamweaver 1.0 DHTML editor from Macromedia Dynamite DHTML editor from Astound
iNet Developer DHTML editor from Pictorius
All links validated on November 29, 1997
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