Science and Technology Education Center

Tel-Aviv University - School of Education

Knowledge Technology Laboratory








David Mioduser, Rafi Nachmias, Avigail Oren & Orly Lahav



Research Report No. 60




Tel-Aviv University

School of Education

Knowledge Technology Lab

Ramat-Aviv, Tel-Aviv, 69978






In press in journal of Network and Computer Applications (JNCA)


[For internal teaching and research use at Tel-Aviv University]

[© by the journals or books publishers]


The web, today, is a firmly established (virtual) reality, which offers unprecedented opportunities to education. This is the third of a series of papers dealing with the characterization and mapping of educational Websites. The first focused on the development of an evaluation and classification tool for the analysis of Websites (Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren, & Lahav, in press). The second focused on the mapping of the current technological and pedagogical state of the educational Websites landscape (Mioduser, Nachmias, Oren, & Lahav, in press). This paper focuses on the identification of emerging models and trends in the development of Web-based learning environments (WBLE).

The Web constitutes today a space for people to communicate, work, trade or spend leisure time. And increasingly, too, a place to learn (Berenfeld, 1996). An increasing number of educational agents (e.g., schools, community centers, special interest groups, organizations, homes), aware of the potential of the novel ICT technologies for education, enter on a daily basis the community of producers and users of Web-based learning materials. Educational Websites, or Web-based learning environments (WBLE), are the results of educatorsí attempts to wrap together Web technology features (e.g., information manipulation, communication, and creation tools) according to their educational and pedagogical beliefs and pursued learning goals.

A great variability characterizes the Websites population, in terms of the identity of the sites originators (e.g., teachers, students, development centers, research centers) the developersí goals and motivations, subject matter, allowed functions (e.g., communication, information retrieval), pedagogical approach, or learning activities. This continuous increase in number of sites is complemented by high expectations in the educational community regarding the educational potential of the Web technology.

The pace of growth, the variability in quality, and the potential gaps between expectations and realization rise the need to start mapping educational Websites in systematic ways. This study deals with such a mapping focusing on two main questions:

To answer these questions we developed a mapping or classification scheme, the Taxonomy of WBLE (Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren & Lahav, in press), implemented it for the study of about 500 educational Websites, and elaborated on practical implications of the studyís results. In the following sections, we will briefly describe our classification scheme, we will present the study and its findings, and finally we will discuss key evolving trends in the development of WBLEs.

Taxonomy of WBLE

In this study we implemented a classification scheme or taxonomy of educational Websites that aims to reflect the developers' educational philosophies by revealing how different functionalities are configured, the knowledge is structured and represented in the site, and communication features are implemented. Our taxonomy characterizes an educational Website by about 100 variables regarding four main dimensions: basic descriptive information (e.g., site ID, updating, population); pedagogical and educational considerations (e.g., instructional model, interaction, cognitive processes); knowledge attributes (e.g., representational structure, navigation tools); and communication features (e.g., types of telelearning, communication means). For a more detailed presentation of the taxonomy's rationale, background and description refer to Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren & Lahav (in press).


Five evaluators acted as research assistants. All five are students in the graduate program of Communication and Computers in Education in Tel-Aviv University School of Education, have scientific background, and are currently science educators. First, Each of the evaluators was assigned to find about 100 educational Websites. They were instructed to select Websites that met the following criteria: (a) the site has been deliberately developed for educational purposes; and (b) it must be clearly focused and identifiable as a specific instructional unit (e.g., by its focus on a specific topic, or on a specific learning task). The first criterion means that, although any site in the Web can be used as resource for learning, only sites explicitly defined by their developers as pursuing educational goals were selected for this study. The second criterion was defined to avoid the selection of ìmega-sitesî, i.e., Websites that are in fact "umbrella-sites", or general-access-sites to conglomerates of educational projects or web pages. In addition, the content area for the selection of the sites for the present study was circumscribed to mathematics, science and technology education. In this process 524 sites were initially selected, and at the end 436 Websites were included our final sample.

Following this stage, each one of the five evaluators received about 90 Websites, randomly selected from our list, to be characterized according to the Taxonomy of WBLE. In order to assess the validity of the database, a sample of about 25% of the Websites was analyzed once again by a different evaluator.

A detailed presentation of the results is beyond the scope of this paper (see Mioduser, Nachmias, Lahav, & Oren, in press). In the following we present and discuss a selected sample of findings, as a basis for the further elaboration on emerging models and trends.



The transition of the Web technology from its early rudimental stages to the current ìeveryone-can-do-itî stage, generated high expectations among educators. These expectations relate to the Webís potential impact on educational processes in three main domains, fostering (a) the raise of new pedagogical forms emerging out of unique features of the technology; (b) the development of improved information-organization, representation, and handling capabilities; and (c) the enhancement of communication processes among students and teachers and support for collaborative learning. Before elaborating on the extent to which these expectations are fulfilled and give rise to novel pedagogical models, we will briefly summarize the result of our mapping of the current state of educational Websites in three main dimensions, namely, pedagogy, content, and communication features.

Pedagogical Characteristics of WBLE's

A reasonable expectation is that the development of educational Websites would reflect currently accepted pedagogical approaches such as the fostering of the studentís active involvement in the construction of knowledge, her interaction with peers and experts, the adaptation of instruction to individual needs, and new ways to assess the studentsí state of knowledge and learning. Moreover, given the innovative character of the technology, it could be also expected that even new pedagogicalÜforms based on the unique features of the technology would arise.

The results indicate that this is not the situation (see Table 1). Only 28.2% of the sites include inquiry-based activities, and more than three-quarters were highly structured placing the control over the learning process mainly on the computer side. Most sites elicit cognitive processes such as retrieving information (52.5%) or rote learning (42%), fewer focus on analysis and inference processes (32.6%) and even less on problem-solvingÜand decision-making (5%). Only a few sites include student-modeling and adaptation mechanisms. In addition, and considering the fact that network technologies appear to be ideal milieu for the implementation of collaborative work, it is highly deceptiveÜto find that only 2.8% of the sites support any form of collaborative learning. These results conclusively show that the pedagogical approaches favored by educators and researchers for the development of valuable learning environments are still far from being implemented in most educational Websites.

Regarding interaction types, we found that most sites include browsing (76.4%) or simple forms of interaction (42.4%), and few sites offer complex (3%) or even on-line (6.4%) activities. Few sites include any form of feedback, either automatic (16.3%) or human (5.5%). Most sites offer resources and means related to information handling (65%). Only few offer the student online tools (12.8%) or resources external to the site itself such as resources in other sites (31%) or experts (8.7%).

Table 1: Websites analysis for the pedagogical dimension



Instructional configuration Individualized instruction 407 (93.3%)
Classroom collaborative learning 54 (12.4%)
Web collaborative learning 12 (2.8%)



Directed 330 (75.7%)
Inquiry-based 123 (28.2%)



Information-base 283 (64.9%)
Tools 56 (12.8%)
Structured activity 211 (48.4%)
Open-ended activity 43 (9.9%)
Virtual environment 30 (6.9%)
Student modeling/adaptive mechanism 0 (0%)



Browsing 333 (76.4%)
Multiple choice question 137 (31.4%)
Simple activity 185 (42.4%)
Complex activity 13 (3.0%)
On-line tool 28 (6.4%)
Expert consultation 58Ü (13.3%)



Information retrieval 229 (52.5%)
Memorizing 183 (42.0%)
Information analysis and inference 142 (32.6%)
Problem solving and decision making 22 (5.0%)
Creation and invention 20 (4.6%)

Locus of


Student controlled 377 (86.5%)
Software environment controlled 77 (17.7%)
Mixed initiative 26 (6.0%)
Feedback Automatic 71 (16.3%)
Human asynchronous 17 (3.9%)
Human synchronous 7 (1.6%)



Technical help 91 (20.9%)
Contextualized content-help 152 (34.9%)
Didactic help 73 (16.7%)



Within Website resources 363 (83.3%)
Linked WWW resources 135 (31.0%)
Additional external resources 93 (21.3%)
External resources only 4 (0.9%)
Real time data collection 6 (1.4%)
Ask an expert 38 (8.7%)
Ask a peer 17 (3.9%)
Evaluation Standardized tests 29 (6.7%)
Alternative evaluation 7 (1.6%)


Pre-Web (digital) educational materials present fascinating examples of the multiple ways educators succeeded in harnessing the new technologies to educational needs and goals (e.g., constructivist environments, intelligent tutoring systems, sophisticated multimedia learning environments). Against this rich background, the vast majority of educational sites prove to be the unripe fruits of the promising but still immature Web technology.

Information Representation and Handling

In our digital times the visual-world (e.g., still images, icons, video-clips, animated graphics. movies) has reentered the scene in stronger presence and linguistic status and meaning than in its pre-Gutenberg incarnation. High-level and sophisticated integrated-media is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of state-of-the-art Websites today. But again, our results showed that educational Websites march behind (it should be noted that we are not looking after educatorsí technical óand even pyrotechnical- use of imaging technology, but after their use of visual languages). The vast majority of sites are still heavily based on text (93% of the sites include more than one text field in all its pages). About 58% of the sites include at least one image per page; most sites do not include interactive images (96.1%), animated images (81.9%), or sound (see Table 2).

Table 2: Representational means in educational Websites

Not at


At list one in the site

50% of pages in the site

One per page

More than one























Interactive image

































Real-time updating











Regarding structure and organization of knowledge, the Web is the realization of the hypertext (or hypermedia) model. Non-linear structure, complex linkage within and between information units, and appropriate navigation and search tools are defining features of this model. Our results reveal only a shallow presence of these features in the evaluated Websites (Table 3). Only about half of the sites included within-the-site linkage to a reasonable extent (more than one link per page), and about 11% of the sites refer to other sites (external linkage) at the same extent.


Table 3: Link structure in educational Websites

Not at


At list one

in the site

50% of

pages in

the site

One per





Within the site











Links to external sites













Yes (N of sites %)


No (N of sites %)

external databases

74 (17.0%)

362 (83.0%)

external tools

12 (2.8%)

424 (97.2%)

external activities

42 (9.6%)

394 (90.4%)

virtual reality devices

8 (1.8%)

428 (98.2%)

human communication

25 (5.7%)

411 (94.3%)



The results of this study show that limited communication resources were used in most Websites (Table 4). The most (and almost sole) resource present in the sites is electronic mail (about 65% of the sites). Other tools such as discussion groups, chat, or any form of distant work (e.g., tele-manipulation, tele-creation) were found only in a few sites. Moreover, features aimed to support working groups or learning communities were not found in any of the evaluated sites. The gap betweenÜexpectations and actual implementation in the communications domain is even more evident than in the previously discussed domains. The main reason for that is that the technological resources do exist and are being successfully implemented in other areas of peopleís life (e.g., work, professional training, banking, shopping). In addition, transactions among humans and between humans and information resources are quintessential to education, and it is not hard to conceive endless forms of support that communication technology could offer for these processes. As for todayís reality, this support is not yet a function in most educational Websites.

Table 4: Use of communication resources in Websites



(N of sites, %)

Synchronic activities

17 (3.9%)

Communication means

283 (64.9%)

Discussion group without mediator

15 (3.4%)

Discussion group with mediator

10 (2.3%)


8 (1.8%)


0 (0%)

Video conference

0 (0%)


1 (0.2%)


7 (1.6%)



In a previous paper we characterized the first stages in the assimilation process of every new technology by educators as ìone step ahead for the technology, two steps back for the pedagogyî (Mioduser, Nachmias, Oren, & Lahav, in press). As experienced educatorsÜwe hold substantial models regarding the varied facets of our practice (e.g., how to build a lesson plan, to assess a learnerís performance or behavior, to develop a learning unit). These models are usually tied to the (technological) resources at hand, and they affect each other mutually. It seems reasonable to assume that when facing the assimilation of a new technology we use these models as input to the process. The result is usually a transition period at which we replicate the known models by means of the new technology. While first assimilating the computer technology developers replicated the programmed instruction paradigm by means of the new technology, initially in the form of electronic worksheets and booklets then evolving in time into sophisticated drill and practice and structured tutoring software (Venezky & Osin, 1991). Our claim is that this study reveals a similar transitional phenomenon regarding the vast majority of educational Websites. Most sitesí main component is the information-base, built upon the hypermedia-CD model (even a feature with can be claimed as unique to the Web, as the linkage to external sites, is today included in many hybrid CD-Web products). As for interactivity features based on the implementation of new technological resources (e.g., forms, Java applets, Shockwave), most online activities resemble the automatic-feedback (behaviorist-like) transactions of classic CAI (e.g., multiple-choice, select-correct-part, assemble-correct-configuration).

In light of these results one can adopt the skepticsí perspective and argue that Web technology has little to offer to education. But one can also adopt a more thoughtful perspective, reflecting on the potential outcomes of this transition stage and looking for unique examples of emerging (and promising) directions in the research and development of educational Websites. In the following we will briefly refer to five such relevant directions.


Curricular issues

A great deal of theoretical and practical knowledge has been generated regarding curriculum research and development based on the print technology (e.g., see the definitely classic by Tyler, 1949, or the comprehensive review in Jackson, 1992). The shift towards representing and delivering knowledge by means of digital technology (side-by-side with the textbook? Instead of the textbook?) is today an unquestionable reality. This shift represents profound changes regarding key curricular issues, for example:

These and other changes create the need to revise current curricular theories. Considering the principles underlying the print-technology-curriculum versus the digital-technology-curriculum, how can we relate the later to the former: natural continuation? gradual evolution? break through? The preliminary answers embodied in current quality Websites are more instances of pragmatic decision-making than of theoretical formulation of new curricular principles. The challenge is thus twofold. First, we should identify, analyze, categorize and generalize these pragmatic solutions as first step in the definition of a more general body of curricular principles. But at the same time we should elaborate, focusing on the unique characteristics of the new technology, on new directions and models which appear to be promising for supporting innovative teaching and learning processes.

Among the Websites that exemplify new curricular trends a salient representative is Chickscope ( - initiated by educators and researchers from several departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.The website offers students and teachers the opportunity to access updated scientific data. Using the Internet students and teachers can login to computers at the university that controlls a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) system, manipulate experimental conditions through a simple Web interface to generate their own data, and view the resulting MRI of the chick embryo in real time. In addition, this Website includes: a day-by-day multimedia journey through the life-cycle of a chicken embryonic development; a series ofÜinteractive activities demonstrating mathematical properties of Embryology; a course in Biological imaging and image processing; and a large database of MRI. Teachers and students have full responsibility in creating their own learning program, communicating with researchers at the university, and with friends to reflect on their learning.

Several Websites also provide web-based tools to scaffold knowledge integration. For example, the WISE curriculum project ( offers a Web-based learning environment where students perform innovative science curriculum activities that draw from the wealth of material available on the Internet. These activities can vary widely, including: Survey existing Web material; perform a handson (off-line) activity; participate in an electronic discussion; critique other classmates' designs; etc. A detailed description can be found in Linn and Hsi (1999).


Collaborative Learning

Undoubtedly one of the defining features of the Web technology is that it enables peoples interaction with (distant repositories of) knowledge as well as with each other - namely communication. These two within-group events, knowledge manipulation and interpersonal transactions, were extensively studied in the contextÜof group learning processes (e.g., Sharan, etc.). However, in the context of the new technologies we should pay attention to significant changes in group functioning in contrast to traditional group learning situations, among others:

Examples of Websites supporting collaborative activities are: GLOBE ( - a worldwide network of students, teachers, and scientists working together to study and understand the global environment by creating and investigating collaborative database; Educational MOOs (see a comprehensive list in the recent book of Haynes & Holmevik, 1998); ThinkQuest ( which is an interactive, collaborative gaming environment.


Learning Communities

Computer mediated communication (CMC) is a key resource for the creation of learning communities. A learning community can be defined as a novel educational system based on the combination of three components (Oren, Nachmias, Mioduser, & Lahav, in press): a virtual community (social dimension), hosted by an appropriate virtual environment (technological dimension), and embodying advanced pedagogical ideas (educational dimension).

Many sites on the Internet define themselves as virtual learning environments, in the most general sense: a gateway to information and communication, any time and from any place. However, a more detailed analysis of such sites reveals that they do not possess all the features that are essential for a virtual environment to support a virtual community aimed at learning, e.g.,:

If virtual learning communities are offered as a third place in addition to work or school, and to home (Oldenburg, 1991), they should be developed upon novel conceptions and offer unique tools and activity modes, which differentiates them from the other spaces. This environment should supply all the communicational tools needed for developing social relations, tutor-student relations, and expert-novice relations. Likewise, management and moderating functions should be included to support social definitions (e.g., status, roles) and transactions. These environments should promote learning processes based on membersí personal interests, willingness to participate, and motivation to interact with peers, teachers and other knowledge sources within a dynamic learning community.

MATAR ( as a national science and technology virtual learning community for teachers, provide a good example for these ideas. MATAR seeks for ways to involve elementary school science and technology teachers in the virtual community providing them on-line usefulÜinformation, virtual courses, and opportunities to communicate. Another example of learning community appears in the Teachers Helping Teachers site (ÜThis Website provides basic teaching tips to inexperienced teachers; new ideas in teaching methodologies for all teachers and a forum for experienced teachers to share their expertise with colleagues around the world.


Visual languages

The use of visual materials to represent aspects of the world, ideas, and emotions has been an essential component of human's experience since the beginning of humankind. From the very first visual creations on the cave walls and peopleís own bodies, to the current digital virtual worlds, visual materials fulfil a variety of roles in our lives, e.g., communication, education, expression. For several centuries however, the written and printed word have been the main conveyors of information, and the main representational means serving educational purposes as well (Baron, 1997). During this period, images were incorporated in texts mainly for illustration or for ornamental purposes. In this century, image-based technologies (e.g., cinema, television), and more recently digital multimedia, brought visual representations back into the centre ofÜthe scene with unprecedented strength. Educational Websites play an active role within this trend, adopting as well as contributing to the development of a variety of salient features, such as:

Several websites support visual languages, by using icons, 2D & 3D images, VRMLs, interactive images and complex visual representations. For example: The Alphabet Superhighway ( use rich visual resources supporting the creation, location, and communication of information by students through active learning, guided discovery, mentoring, competitions, and other on-line activities.

Knowmagine - A Virtual KnowledgeÜParkÜof Science, Technology, and Human CultureÜÆ includes static, dynamic, 2D and 3D interactive images.

The site of Blossoms of Science at the Jordan Valley College (, provides opportunity for students to use a modern optical telescope at the observatory to view changing real-time maps. Complex visual representations can be viewed in the Science Learning Network resources such as: Hurricane Spiral maps, ocean maps and visual weather maps (


Distance learning

Web technology has contributed to the creation of new forms of distance learning, either by empowering existing resources of traditional distance education or by the creation of new resources. For example, in contrast to the traditional one-way and one-to-many traditional TV broadcasting of lectures, video conferencing represent a significant switch towards multiple-ways participation and many-to-many interactivity. A dominant form in the development of Web-based distance learning are virtual courses. Their number is continuously growing, andÜappear in a wide range of configurations. At one end a large number of isolated courses can be found on a large diversity of topics. At the other end are organized virtual schools of different types (e.g., secondary, vocational, university) proposing many courses, and even offering formal acreditation and degrees. This study focused mainly on WBLEs in general, and not specifically on virtual courses ó however in many cases the distinction was difficult to make. A number of salient issues in this evolving trend are mentioned in the following.

The Virtual High School (VHS) project ( is a joint effort of high schools from all over the USA. All the participating schools have access to a vast repositoire of online, exciting, high-quality courses, gain greater flexibility in teaching assignments, and offer students exposure to students from other backgrounds and cultures (Tinker, 1998). More online K -12 virtual schools and courses can be found in (

The authors are part of the community of educators dealing with the problematic involved in the assimilation of Web technology to education (Mioduser & Oren, 1998; Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren & Lahav, in press). Although in this study we have referred to the educational Websites population in quantitative terms, we are aware that a number of fascinating examples of high pedagogical-quality sites do exist in the Web. But our main purpose in this study, rather to focus on the exceptions, was to map and learn what most existing sites and current trends as they are delivered to cyberspace have to offer to educators and learners. Based on this and similar studies, the next steps should focus on the research and development of novel Web-based educational models (Windschite, 1998) and on the implementation of a revised configuration of the technology-assimilation evolutionary loop: two steps ahead for the pedagogy/technology, one step back for reflection and mindful planning of subsequent steps.



Tinker, R. (1998). The Virtual High School: a Scalable Cooperative.