Botany online - Private Digital Library


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The World Wide Web - The Ultimate Information Source for Teaching Biology

Alice BERGFELD   &   Peter v. SENGBUSCH
IT-support: Rolf BERGMANN

The World Wide Web has now for about 10 years been a source of general information. Originally developed as the ARPA net, it served as a decentralized security device for military applications. When it was released, it developed into a network for the scientific community and from there it spread to a wider public and even to commercial use.

Since members of the scientific community realized rather early, that the World Wide Web could be used for educational purposes to hand on information from one generation to the next, a number of teachers (internet authors) invested a lot of time to produce and publish extremely usefull digital educational projects. Teachers discovered, that their efforts have not only a use for students at their local schools, colleges or universities. Instead, it became possible to integrate their knowledge and other sources to build a network, that acts to conserve the cultural heritage and to stabilize the living standard of the present and future generations. It is used by a continuously growing number of users worldwide. Indeed, the dissimination of digital educational projects is not limited to citizens of industrialized countries, but it became an educational tool for developing countries, too - unbelievable during the last centuries, when paper documents, like textbooks and other printed sources, were standard in learning and compiling information units.

In last year's PKAL Summer Institute at Keystone / Colorado we organized a workshop session entitled "Virtual Plants ? - Enhancing Learning with Information Technologies". To support our ideas, we established a digital library called "The Internet Library - Teaching Botany and Related Topics". We asked a number of our collegues, who are internet authors, to allow us to mirror their projects on our server and to produce a limited number of non-commercial CDs for the members of the workshop, for the contributing authors, and for students and faculties of a few East-African Universities.

Since size and number of valuable web-projects are in the process of exploding and we do not have the capacity to expand and update our Internet Library indefinitely, we decided to develop a Private Digital Library for this year's workshop presentation at Snowbird, that is strictly an image of our favours and that we called for the time being "THE SNOWBIRD COLLECTION" - see bookshelves. All links of this catalogue are absolute. During the workshop, we will work with an offline version, i. e. a mirror of these projects, which we retrieved and stored on our hard-disc only. Web-authors usually give permission to use their projects for private and educational purposes. Since teachers - especially in science - always dependent on information sources they have not developed by themselves, like original papers, review articles, journals, textbooks, movies, models etc., they or their institutions have always been forced to purchase them. The numbers of these sources and the expenses rise exponentially and as a consequence, the importance of each of these information sources decreases rapidly. Textbooks get quickly outdated, textbook authors cannot cope with this speed and have to face the fact, that their books are not bought and used. In the following, we have discussed a few ideas concerning the impact of textbooks in conserving knowledge and supporting science. We have focussed on personal engagements, experiences in teaching and opinions of the authors as documented in the prefaces of their textbooks. Their accomplishments result in something resembling a history of textbook literature and its possibilities to support scientific progress.

We are lucky to be teachers of biology or as one would say today "life sciences", because most humans are interested in those matters of life that most of our activities focus on. We admire the performances of active sportsmen, we admire their intelligence required to win a game, we use our senses evolved during aeons of time, we realize that recognition of colours is essential for survival, since they function as signals, but they have emotional values, too. Why do do we like flowers ? What does an insect or hummingbird think about them ? Does it think at all ? In addition, we use colours to conserve information: paintings, book illustrations (formerly handmade, later in print), colour photography, colour television, needless to say that colours are a major tool in about all websites.

Humans are interested in life and all its implications and many of us use life sciences to earn our living. This however does not mean, that we have to become professional biologists, since applied biology is traditionally taught in other scientific disciplines, like medicine, agriculture, horticulture, forestry, etc. In accordance with their main subjects, non-majors have to gain some basic concepts of life, the reason, why they have to take classes in biology. You will find a more elaborate hypertext presentation on this disc. Education was and is a never-ending story. Many personal opinions and experiences are involved, and money matters. Restrictions occur at all levels, life time is short and social environments are very critical factors compareable to the selection pressure of biological evolution.

We are now in the situation, that the World Wide Web has become the ultimate source of information. This, we think, is a fitting and true statement, and in the future no teacher will have a chance to avoid using information sources freely available on the web. We argue, that all requirements as stated for example by the Standards of the National Academy of Sciences have already and sufficiently been fullfilled, since web authors have done their homework without being much supported by publishers or governmental agencies. The development of internet teaching resembles the evolution of life itself. Information technologies show all the concepts of life discovered by scientists. The speed of collecting information exceeds biological evolution by magnitudes, since it depends only on the knowledge of intelligent individuals. Life started with molecules and to understand evolution, one has to know the importance of selection pressures. The second law of thermodynamics provided the hardest condition: living systems had to develop means to grow faster than to degrade, they had to convert energy to matter in order to keep surviving. Information had to be accumulated, compartments had to be selected, and of all the information only the valuable one had to be selected. The biophysicist and nobel laureate M. EIGEN developed during the early 1970th his Hypercycle Theory, that separates distinctively between information carrier, i.e. the DNA within cells and instruction. In the cell, proteins perform this task. Protein structure is determined by special nucleotide sequences organized in libraries. They are synthesized from DNA-copies, the analogon of Xerox-copies - mRNA, using sophisticated machines - the ribosomes and all the controlling factors. Proteins are very specific and there are many kinds of proteins, that perform their activities within a complex network of chemical reactions we call metabolism. In multicellular organisms, cell-bound proteins regulate the development and maintenance of the organism. Here we are: the www is our information source and it resembles a genetic library. We select those projects usefull to us, copy them, and use them to teach scientific facts to students. Teachers - like proteins - are individuals with special knowledge, they select what they need - books, models, films, living organisms, etc. Teachers store electronic documents on their hard-disk, they distribute the information units to their students. They rearrange the units using all the programs the big software companies supply, and they develop own teaching units to present them to their classes. Meanwhile, students use the same programs at home to create own information units. These differ from the information units the internet authors - individuals and representatives of national and international organizations like the NIH, NASA, USDA, San Diego Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, NAS, NSF, UNESCO, etc., offer for free. All this information is essential for us, it is necessary to secure the intellectual and cultural standards of our and future generations. Education is important in keeping and developing knowledge and living standards of individuals and societies. The instruction of teachers guarantees a person-to-person communication, that is far more efficient than "virtual" information provided by the internet alone. Please do nevertheless note: all our files carry a signature. Each user has to acknowledge the personal rights of the internet authors. Note, too, that information, that is not used and does not carry an instruction becomes worthless. Only if it is used extensively, the information content will be valuable for conserving and trading knowledge. During the preparation of this workshop session, we have dealt with three more topics that you will find on the handout discette.

Continue to:

What do non-majors have to know ?
What do textbooks offer ?
What are the advantages of web projects ? - Some case studies

Alice Bergfeld & Peter v. Sengbusch ***