2. Getting started with web-based projects

2.1 Questions, questions and more questions
2.2 Human resources
Content writer
System administrator
2.3 System requirements

Web technology has become the mainstream of CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) courseware development. While the web has promised to provide more potentials for foreign language instruction, it is crucial that you work out a well-defined project plan and pull together all the necessary resources before you start working on your project.

2.1 The first few questions for a web-based project

Webpages are first created by someone (e.g., content writers and programmers) on a workstation and published on a server (the web server) to be accessed by a user. Users surf those pages through a web browser from a networked computer (the client). Just like any other teaching materials development project using the traditional means (paper-and-pencil, in most cases), the working plan of a web-based CALL project should contain answers to the following minimal set of questions:

1) Learning materials authoring:

  • Who is going to use the courseware?
  • What are the objectives of the courseware?
  • Who will be responsible for writing the content?

2) Backend technology:

  • What kind of server platforms are you going to use? Is it WindowsNT/2000, UNIX or other OS'es?
  • What is the web server software to be used?
  • How do you produce audio/video/graphics files? Who is going to do it?
  • How do you handle text processing problems? In a language instruction project, the issue of foreign language support on both the server and client platforms is crucial.

3) Webpage design:

  • Who is responsible for webpage designing and authoring?
  • Who is going to write scripts (if necessary) to handle interactive design?
  • If webpage authoring tools are to be used, which ones are you going to use? Are you going to use Microsoft FrontPage, Dreamweaver, HotPotato and/or other authoring tools?

To be able to answer the above minimal set of questions, the development team of a web-based CALL project should have both the necessary human and system resources.

2.2 Human resources

Whether a web project is an individual endeavor or that of a teamwork, developing online interactive language learning materials requires expertise in three different areas which include content authoring, programming and system administration.

2.2.1 Content writer

This is someone who will develop the content of language learning materials. Usually language instructors will be responsible for this part of the job. While a language instructor may have written learning materials for classroom use before, to work on a comparatively large language instruction project requires a solid training and first-hand experiences in teaching materials development. Further, content developers should be aware of the limitations of the web as well as other related technology.

Well planning is crucial for web-based projects, as in the case of paper-and-pencil based projects. Take the simple case of writing language exercises using the multiple-choice format, for example. It takes some insights and efforts to even create three or four appropriate options for a multiple choice question. The same principles apply to web-based projects where equal efforts are required.

(Place holder) To see how well prepared you are, take a look at this page to see if it is easy or difficult to write three or four multiple choice questions for reading comprehension.

2.2.2 System administrator

This is someone who is responsible for setting up, configuring and maintaining servers on which those learning materials will be published. Usually other internet services such as email, ftp and file sharing are also provided from the same server system. In order to process user input data, for example, a system administrator would have to configure the web server properly to allow scripts (which implement interactivity) to be running on the machine.

2.2.3 Programmer

This is someone who can write programs or scripts to process user input data and customize your webpages for interactivity.. There are three kinds of programming skills involved as far as developing web-based applications is concerned:

  • Client-side programming using such scripting languages as JavaScript and Java, etc.;
  • Server-side programming using such scripting languages as Perl, VisualBasic, PHP3 and Java, etc.;
  • Database programming, which can be considered part of server-side programming, though it has its own unique characters that deserve to be highlighted here.

The particular programming proficiency of a programmer is not a crucial factor. As long as one is good at one programming language, he/she can pick up other languages very quickly.

2.3 System requirement

2.3.1 Server

By server we refer to two things: The server machine (hardware) and the web (as well as database) server software. A server machine is the computer on which your webpages are stored and published. Web server is a piece of software which runs on the server machine through which those pages are made available on the internet. In the real world, the term 'web server' could refer to both the hardware and software, depending on the context.

Since most language teaching websites do not have a heavy network traffic, the exact hardware configuration of the serve system is not of a particular concern to CALL developers. Rather, it is important to know which operating system is installed on your server machine before you start your project.

The two most popular operating systems on which a web server is running are UNIX and WindowsNT. (See www.netcraft.com for statistics.)

On UNIX-based servers, Apache is the most popular web server software. In fact, more than half of productive web servers on the entire Internet are powered by Apache (c.f. www.netcraft.com). On Windows-based servers such as Windows2000 Server or WindowsNT Server, Microsoft Internet Information Server is the most popular.

To know which type of web server you will be using and how it is configured is very important for your web-based project. For example, you can use Microsoft FrontPage Explorer to save your files directly onto a server. In comparison, if you are using a Unix-based web server, you will most likely use ftp to upload your files, though a Unix machine can be made available as an ordinary filesharing folder in your local area network. Details about these issues can be found from your system administrator. Please consult them accordingly.

Question: Can I publish web pages from my own desktop machine?
Answer: Yes, as long as your computer is connected to the internet and has the appropriate web server software installed.

2.3.2 Client

This is the machine that language learners will use to access your web-based learning materials. While its platform is not critical, a client machine should have the following capabilities:

  • Network-ready: Be able to access the network through direct (LAN), dial-up access or other means.
  • Internet application software: Web browsers as well as other network applications such as email, ftp, telnet and news reader, etc..
  • Multimedia ready: Video/sound card, speakers, headphones, etc. It is very likely that language learning materials will incorporate both audio and video components.
  • Target language support: This is especially important for languages such as Chinese and Japanese which use two-byte encoding. (A simple tutorial can be found here about how to configure your Windows (English version) with Chinese language support.)

2.3.3 Networking

A special note should be mentioned here about the kind of network connection available to you and your user. You must consider this factor before you set to design your web pages. There are three major means to access the internet:

  • Direct access: LAN/WAN. Ethernet
  • Dial-up: phone modem through phone line
  • Others: ISDN, DSL and Cable modem, etc..

The crucial factor which distinguishes the various connection methods is speed. Direct access is the fastest, while dial-up is the slowest. Others fall in-between. Remember that larger files takes more time to download and most users just don't have the patience for waiting too long.

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