Offline Web Browsing = No More Excuses!by Wesley A. Fryer
To each of these reasons, technologists and administrators can now reply, "No more excuses! Offline web browsing is the answer!"
It is remarkable that a large number of current, internet-related, educational grant projects (which have been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars from various funding sources) do not require classroom internet access to carry out. Leased T1 lines, CAT-5 wiring cable strung throughout a school building, and expensive new computers are certainly nice, but are NOT required to access many of the curriculum applications present on the world-wide web. This article defines offline web browsing and explores reasons why educators and students benefit from this type of internet use. It explains important features to look for when selecting offline web browsing software, and compares the features and performance of several offline web software products from the perspective of a classroom teacher. Finally, recommendations are included for the most cost effective way for schools and districts to begin reaping the benefits of offline internet use.
WHAT IS "OFFLINE WEB BROWSING?"
At its basic level, internet access requires three primary things:
Offline web browsing essentially puts all three of these software and hardware requirements on a single computer: YOURS. The content from the server is downloaded and copied for storage on your hard drive. Instead of using a modem and phone line to request text and graphics from a remote server, users open desired webpages directly from their computer's hard drive. The adjacent sidebar explains how to open a webpage in Netscape which you have copied to your hard drive.
Computers connected to a local area network (within your school) or a wide area network (possibly within your district) can similarly access internet webpages stored on any server within the network. Because the language of the internet (TCP/IP) is universal, Mac and Windows machines alike can access the same materials through their web browsers. As discussed later, networked computers are preferable for offline web browsing, but STAND ALONE, ONE COMPUTER CLASSROOMS ARE ADEQUATE for offline web browsing!
For educators, offline web browsing means being able to utilize a vast array of internet content in classrooms which have a web browser-capable computer, but do NOT have a modem, phone line, or other internet connection. Students can utilize copied websites for research as they would electronic encyclopedias on CD-ROM, copying and pasting text as well as graphics for use in multimedia presentations. Teachers can use internet content to supplement their instructional curriculum. The range of applications is virtually unlimited.
Offline web browsing raises unique copyright questions which cannot be ignored. When these products were initially introduced several years ago, some organizations threatened to sue individuals using them to copy corporate websites, since "copying" was done without permission and (in their view) in violation of US copyright law. These cases were eventually dropped or settled out of court. The jury is still out on the issue of copyright as it pertains to offline web browsing, however. The safest path is to request the permission of website owners/administrators before making a copy on your hard drive.
This situation is a classic example of how US copyright law seems ill-fitted for our third wave, information dominated economy. According to Tim McLain and the Staff of Classroom Connect (http://www.classroom.net), "harvesting web pages from the internet and using them in a classroom setting is permitted under the United States' fair use of copyrighted works clause found in the current copyright laws." While they maintain this copying is legal in an educational setting, Classroom Connect writers clearly point out that "This copying is illegal in a business setting." Copyright issues will continue to be debated for many years to come, and educators should remain informed. In addition to the copyright related links included on this column's website, Stanford University's fair use and copyright website is an excellent information source (http://fairuse.stanford.edu/) .
WHY BROWSE WEBSITES OFFLINE?
In many ways, browsing websites offline is preferable to "live" internet access in an educational setting. Some reasons for this preference are:
Most school districts have not wired all buildings for internet access or installed phone lines in each classroom for web access. Recent surveys reveal 65% of US public schools are "online" (at least one computer in the building has web access), but only 14% of classrooms have access. If a school owns a modem it is likely in the computer lab and funds may not be allocated to purchase more. Teachers may not even have a computer in their own classroom. Access to the internet and integration of web-content in instruction could be regarded as a pipe-dream of the future. By using a COW (computer on wheels) or the computer already in their classroom, teachers can browse websites offline to bring internet content into instruction TODAY, without substantial cost.
Everyone even vaguely familiar with the internet is aware of the presence of "objectionable materials" on the world-wide web which students should not access. By having them browse websites offline, educators maintain TOTAL control over the content viewed by students. Without a "live" internet connection, students cannot accidentally or intentionally encounter objectionable internet material which could cause parents to question the entire idea of internet access. While some internet skills (like Boolean searching: See TechEdge, November 1997) must be taught on computers connected "live" to the internet, many internet applications can be accomplished offline. These include research, virtual field trips, scavenger hunts, etc.
LIMITED CLASS TIME
In today's classroom, especially with the added pressures of the TAAS, instructional time is more precious than ever. Although many search engines exist which attempt to impose organizational order on the internet, it remains a chaotic web. It is possible to waste countless hours searching the internet for worthwhile information about a specific topic. Students in class do not have a large about of discretionary time. By locating websites and copying them onto computers for students to use offline, educators can reduce the amount of time students spend locating useful internet information and increase the amount of time students spend using that information.
Even with a fast modem, accessing a website can be a frustratingly slow process. A variety of factors in addition to your modem speed determine how quickly a webpage appears in your browser window, including:
Each of these factors are usually beyond your control, dooming you to either wait for the page to finally load, "reload" the page in hopes of a faster transfer, or give up and move on to another website. When you browse websites offline which are stored on your computer's hard drive, however, access speed is almost instantaneous. Whether you are showing a website to an excited group of elementary students or teaching secondary students how to use website text in a research project, instant access speed is WONDERFUL and clearly enhances instructional effectiveness.
DESIRED FEATURES FOR OFFLINE WEB SOFTWARE
Over twenty different software products have been created in the last two years to permit users to browse internet content offline. In 1996, the market for offline browsing software was predicted to be a $250 million business by 1998. The recent adoption of some offline web browsing features in Netscape Communicator and MS Explorer 4.0 have caused several companies to abandon their offline web software, but a confusing array of software products remains with widely varying features and advantages for educational use. (Among the casualties were WebEx by Traveling Software, METZ Netretriever and Freeloader.) An updated list of currently available, offline web software products is available from this column's website: http://www.wtvi.com/teks.
Before examining the important features of offline web software for educational use, several clarifications are needed. A distinction should be made between software products designed to download/copy websites of the user's choosing and products which limit website content that may be copied and viewed. Pointcast (www.pointcast.com) is a product identified as an "offline web agent," but it is actually an internet news network which delivers only specified content. It is NOT, therefore, true "offline web browser software" as defined in this article.
A second distinction should be made between software programs designed to copy webpages for use on a SINGLE computer workstation (YOURS), and software designed to let you easily copy webpages to OTHER COMPUTER WORKSTATIONS. The offline web agent elements of Netscape Communicator (called Netcaster) and MS Explorer fall into the first category. If there are certain websites you would like to regularly view, you can "schedule" your computer to download those webpages at specified times so they will be available for instant viewing by you at a later time. While products like Netscape's Netcaster permit you to specify the "levels" of a website you would like to copy, they do not permit simple transfer of websites to other computer workstations. This distinction is the first feature to look for when selecting offline web browser software:
1) PERMIT SIMPLE TRANSFER OF WEBSITES
Ideally, offline web browser software should permit technologists and/or teachers to easily transfer copied websites to other computers. Several updated offline web programs REQUIRE THAT THEIR LICENSED SOFTWARE BE INSTALLED ON EACH COMPUTER presenting offline websites. Rather than simply save downloaded text documents and images in a single folder which can be copied to other workstations and used immediately with Netscape, these offline programs use a database indexing system which requires the original software (which copied the website from the internet) to view webpages in a browser. For a school setting, this makes a software site license a necessity. Look for offline programs which DO NOT REQUIRE MULTIPLE INSTALLATIONS TO SHARE WEBSITES.
2) TRUNCATE FILENAMES FOR WINDOWS 3.1 COMPATIBILITY
The internet is ideally suited to deliver educational content within a cross-platform computing environment. Select offline web software which allows filenames to be truncated (shortened) so they can be properly accessed on a Windows 3.1 or earlier computer. With this feature, websites can be downloaded on any platform (Mac or Windows) with an offline web program, and subsequently accessed by either type of computer.
3) PERMIT INTERRUPTION OF AN OFFLINE WEBSITE COPYING SESSION
Interruptions in internet access can be common. Depending on the size of the website you are copying to your hard drive, the downloading process can take from several minutes to several hours. If the internet connection goes down, some offline web programs essentially "freeze." Normally, after completely copying a website to your hard drive, these programs rename webpage links to "local" filenames. With some programs, this process CANNOT TAKE PLACE if the internet connection goes down during the copying process. The result can be hours of wasted time waiting for a website to download, and having to attempt the process all over again when transfer is interrupted before the linking process is complete.
The best way to limit the size of copied websites is to just download the webpages you are interested in most. Offline web programs which allow you to download one page and then select which links on that page you want to "follow" and copy further permit the most efficient offline web browsing. Use of this method can prevent you filling up your hard drive with megabytes of webpage documents unrelated to your educational purposes.
5) LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE DOWNLOADED WEBSITE BY LEVELS
When you copy a website to your hard drive, your offline software program should allow you to specify the levels of depth which will be downloaded. If you think of a website as a hierarchical organization or a tree diagram, you can visualize how the number of webpages increases as you specify additional levels to copy. Your offline software should also give you an option of including external links to the website. Remember that the more levels you choose to copy, the longer it will take to download the site (maybe hours) and more hard drive space will be taken up.
6) LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE DOWNLOADED WEBSITE BY DISK SPACE
Since it is difficult (even impossible) to predict how much hard drive space a copied website will take up on your hard drive, software programs should allow you to specify a maximum size for the copy. When the copied site reaches a limit you have specified (maybe 5 or 10 megabytes), the offline software should stop the copying process and link the webpages which were copied together.
7) PERMIT UPDATING/ADDITIONS TO COPIED WEBSITES
Some offline web programs permit you to copy a site "down" to a user-specified depth, but do NOT permit you to later expand the copied sites by adding additional pages or even levels. For maximum flexibility, offline software should permit updating in case you later decide to copy more of the website. If it does not, you will have to start the entire copying process again, this time specifying a deeper number of "levels" to copy.
8) ALLOW SCHEDULING
Offline web programs which allow you to schedule a download, perhaps at 3:00 am when the number of users accessing the website you want to copy will be less, is a handy feature.
Although there are numerous offline software programs available, for educational uses two products stand out. WebWhacker, by Forefront Group Inc. (http://www.ffg.com), and Web Buddy, by Dataviz (http://www.dataviz.com), are presently the most useful offline web programs which perform effectively on both Macintosh and Windows computers. Successive versions of these programs have introduced additional features, but have also eliminated some features that do not necessarily make the most updated version "the best." For this article, copies of WebWhacker 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, and Web Buddy 1.1 were evaluated. Since WebWhacker 2.0 is no longer available for retail sale, a separate listing of its features is not included here. Refer to Table D for a summary comparison of the features of each of these programs (which are still available for purchase).
For school use, although it does not include all the features of newer programs, WebWhacker 1.0 is one of the best offline web software programs available. The fact that WebWhacker 1.0 copies all downloaded webpage files into a single folder and creates a HTML "table of contents" file, rather than using its own database indexing file, is the significant difference that sets it apart from other programs. Unlike WebWhacker 3.0 and Web Buddy, educators DO NOT HAVE TO INSTALL A LOCAL COPY of WebWhacker 1.0 on student workstations to which downloaded websites are copied. This eliminates the need to purchase a site license for an offline browser program and go to the trouble of installing it on each student workstation.
WebWhacker 1.0 does not support some of the trendier webpage features (background sounds, Shockwave objects, etc.) like version 3.0 and Web Buddy. These features are usually non-essential "bells and whistles," however, not really essential parts of the instructional content contained on a webpage. WebWhacker 1.0 does not permit scheduling or allow website size to be limited by disk space, but these shortcomings can be overcome by staying up late to do your "webwhacking" and carefully limiting website size by choosing the site links to be copied.
Another reason WebWhacker 1.0 is an excellent offline software choice is that it was given to schools FREE in several Microsoft Corporation CD-ROMS in 1995-96. Search through your school's CD-ROM archive and see if you can find one of these free software CDs: they include both Mac and Windows versions of WebWhacker 1.0.
If you cannot locate one of these free Microsoft CDs, you can still purchase WebWhacker 1.0 at least two different ways. The fastest way is to purchase it directly from Forefront Group Inc. from their website. The Windows 1.0 version is offered for sale online, but the Macintosh 1.0 version is not. A better choice is to purchase a product from Classroom Connect (http://www.classroom.net) titled "Educator's Guide to WebWhacker" for around $50. This excellent product includes a detailed 145 page tutorial about how to use WebWhacker efficiently, as well as Mac/Win3.x/Win95/Win NT versions of WebWhacker 1.0. A thorough tutorial and four versions of WebWhacker 1.0 is quite a deal!
If you are trying to choose between Web Buddy and WebWhacker 3.0, there are several clear reasons to choose Web Buddy. First, the fact that Web Buddy allows you to interrupt a downloading session without having to start all over is a significant advantage. Its interface is simpler than WebWhacker's, and it provides more detailed status reports about what html and graphic files it is copying during a download session. Its optional feature of putting "dog paw print" icons next to live links (ones not copied to the hard drive) is nice, as well as the attention-getting "bark" which signals the successful download of a website. (The metaphor for Web Buddy is a dog who goes out on the internet to fetch webpages for you.) Web Buddy also includes a nice toolbar which is accessible within Netscape or MS Explorer, and seemed to perform website downloads with more stability than WebWhacker 3.0 in evaluative comparisons.
Depending on which offline software product you select, some advanced webpage features may not be supported. For example, WebWhacker 1.0 will not correctly copy webpages using "frames." This limitation can be overcome by selecting a "no-frames" webpage option on the site you want to copy, before initiating the "whack." Some other features, like background sounds and Java animation, may also not be supported. If the website involves any type of online database searching (using web based programs called CGIs), you will not be able to successfully copy the site to your hard drive with ANY offline web program presently available. Most textual and graphical content, however, which usually comprises the heart of a website, will be accessible. Copied websites may not have all the "bells and whistles," but they can still provide students with such an authentic-feeling "Netscape experience" that many will not be aware they are offline at all!
NASA OFFERS A FREE ALTERNATIVE TO GO OFFLINE
Since the days when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has dedicated a portion of its budget to helping K-12 teachers by developing instructional programs and products. Started in September 1996, the "SIMON" project (School Internet Manager Over Networks) has created an agent based offline web software product which is now available for FREE download over the internet. The web address of the SIMON project is http://prime.jsc.nasa.gov/SIMON/. At present, SIMON closely resembles WebWhacker 1.0. An important difference is SIMON makes it easy for teachers to add their own comments or instructions for their students directly on copied webpages. This feature is handy when designing webpage-based lessons. At present the program does not support scheduling. By January 1998 SIMON will support copying a website to a specified "depth," making it functionally superior to WebWhacker 1.0. Unlike updated versions of WebWhacker, SIMON does not use a proprietary indexing system to catalog copied webpages. This makes transfer of copied websites to other computer workstations much easier. SIMON currently is available only for the Macintosh platform, but it may be ported to the Windows operating system in the future.
At this writing, Apple Computer is planning to include a version of Web Buddy as part of its Internet Connection kit shipping with Macs in February or March of 1998. ForeFront is about to release a new product called "The Offline Educator," which is touted to permit teachers to "share 'whacked' web pages with students and to control their browsing experience remotely." Whatever offline software tool you choose to utilize, the benefits for education are clear. Teachers no longer have an excuse for not using internet resources in their classrooms. Offline web browsing is the answer!
Wesley Fryer is an elementary educator and internet consultant in Lubbock, Texas. He welcomes your questions and comments about this article or about classroom technology integration in general!