#edtech for #edleaders: Web Services

At its most basic level, the World Wide Web is a collection of servers; these computers are always powered on and connected to the network. Files on a web server are contained in a directory that is configured to allow outside users to read the contents, and the file is read when a visitor uses a web browser on his to load the file at a particular web address. When visiting a web page, a visitor requests the file be transferred to his or her computer and the web browser uses the directions in that program to display the file on his or her computer. While the basic organization of the World Wide Web has been unchanged since its invention, the languages used to write web pages have matured in the same way the other software and hardware that are the foundations for the web matured.

The first generation of web pages (sometimes called Web 1.0 by those looking back) were simple files. The programs typically displayed only text and low-resolution images. The text was formatted and the location of the images on the pages were determined by tags added in hypertext markup language. Hyperlinks, which connected web pages to other web pages, were also written into the program. Updating a web page included downloading the html file to a local computer, opening the local copy in a text editing program to change the contents of the page including links and formatting tags. The edited files and additional images were then uploaded to the web server and placed in the directory that was replicated in the URL for the page. To see the changes made to edited files, one would open the address, then use the refresh function in the web browser to reload the program; the new page is transferred from the server to the local computer and built in his or her web browser.

Creating content on Web 1.0 was modeled after the print and electronic broadcasting media models that preceded it. Creating and disseminating web content required sufficient capital and expertise to obtain and manage servers and create and format content, so it tended to be controlled by relatively large and wealthy organizations and highly skilled individuals. Early advocates for the World Wide Web in education envisioned an “infinite library” were students and teachers could find vast information written and produced and curated by professional writers, artists, and editors. What has emerged, of course, is something far different.

By the turn of the century, Web 2.0 tools had emerged and were gaining popularity. These allowed users with more limited expertise and fewer resources to create content and publish to the web. Whereas the first generation of creators of content for the web were largely programmers, the Web 2.0 creators needed only to be able to use a word processor.

When comparing Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, three differences are important. First, Web 2.0 allows users or visitors to sites to create content. Whereas the first web pages contained information created by the owner, Web 2.0 sites rely on the users of the site to create the content. This content ranges from simple comments that are added to pages created by others to entire pages created by the user. Creating content on these sites usually requires one have an account on the site and to comply with the terms of service, but those are easy to meet.

Second, the programs used to create pages on Web 2.0 are much more complex and the programs utilize information stored in databases in a way that Web 1.0 did not. These databases both manage user accounts, so owners of servers can control those who create content on their sites, and the databases are used to manage the files and resources needed to create dynamic and media-rich web sites. For example, with databases a retailer can create a page that displays different products in different colors depending on search results or selections made by the visitor. Web pages created with content stored in databases are often called “mash-ups,” and media (especially including video and other interactive elements) can be created on one site and embedded in many pages and sites around the web.

Third, web pages are created so that mouse clicks and other input from users can be used to both create content that is stored in databases and to call programs that are executed on the server or in the web browser. These aspects of Web 2.0 make the contents and the functions of Web 2.0 sites much more dynamic than Web 1.0 sites. Using all of the features on Web 2.0 requires one use a web browser, and that web browser must be updated. Older versions of web browsers cannot be used to create and view much Web 2.0 content.

There are several different web browsers (including Microsoft’s Edge which is replacing Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple’s Safari, and others), and these exist in many versions. The details of how web browsers interact with databases and display data depends on both the exact version of the web browser, the version of the operating system installed on the client computer, as well as which extensions that have been installed on the client. Screen resolutions, installed fonts, and media players are all locally managed options that affect web page appearance and function as well. The result is that web pages are not consistently displayed across all systems and the viewing experience can be very different for different users. This is further complicated by the emergence of mobile computing devices and versions of web browsers for those devices. To accommodate these many variations, most web authors are adopting html 5, a programming language that produces web content that is more consistently displayed on different systems than previous versions. Web authors are also constantly and frequently checking their work on multiple systems as part of their development work.

For many people, the World Wide Web is being replaced by social media sites as the dominant method of accessing online information. Social media comprises a large collection of sites in which the owner of the site provides no content (other than system announcements and advertisements), and the content is primarily viewable by those who are connected in some manner to the individual who posted it. When one visits Facebook, for example, one sees the content produced by her or his friends or advertisements that are based on one’s viewing or clicking history. Social media has become the dominant online experience. Greenhow, Sonnevend and Agur (2016) observed,

Social media are transforming sectors outside of education by changing patterns in personal, commercial, and cultural interaction. These changes offer a window into the future of education, with new means of knowledge production and reception, and new roles for teachers and learners (p. 1).

Some observers have begun to use the term Web 3.0 to differentiate the more participatory web that has emerged as the web matured, but it is unclear how web 3.0 is different from 2.0. What is clear, however, is that many computer applications and functions that were once performed by applications installed on the hard drive of a computer that was sitting on a desk or on a lap are now available as web services. IT professionals choose the best service model to provide these web services; and those decisions are determined by the purpose, the level of expertise they have, and the need to scale the services. For simple file storage, they can choose an infrastructure as service (IaaS) model. If they need to design online applications (that create and use databases, for example), they choose a platform as service (PaaS) model. They can also use software as service (SaaS) which finds them accessing software created on others’ platforms. Of course, single services can provide multiple models. G Suite, for example, provide a productivity suite (SaaS model), but also unlimited storage (IaaS model) for educational users.

When using a web service, one points a web browser to a site, logs on, and then has applications running in his or her browser. Web services have replaced productivity applications, media creation tools, and data management tools that were once installed on computer hard drives. While web-based productivity tools tend to have fewer features than the applications install on a computer with a full operating system, they do provide sufficient services for many purposes and the information one creates using a web service can be used to create dynamic web pages for other purposes.

School IT managers provide and maintain multiple web platforms including those for:

  • Internal clients to use for teaching and learning (including cloud-based productivity suites and virtual learning environments);
  • Internal clients to use for business and information management (including student information systems and document management);
  • External audiences to use for interactivity (especially email; but also chat, video chat, and messaging);
  • Disseminating information to external audiences (including web sites and social media).

Web services include both those created specifically for educational purposes and audiences (such as student information systems) and also those intended for general audiences (for example social media which I include as web services) that have adapted for educational purposes. Because school IT managers are providing web services for potentially sensitive audiences (children) and that contain potentially sensitive information (about students and other people), they take precautions to ensure the privacy and security of their users and the data for which they are responsible.

Reference

Greenhow, C., Sonnevend, J., & Agur, C. (2016). Introduction. In C. Greenhow, J. Sonnevend, & C. Agur (eds.), Education and social media: Towards a digital future, (pp. 1-8). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.