What is the internet used for? Part 1

With so much interest in the Internet by a large number of people nowadays, what is it used for?

Research and education

In the early days, when the Internet was just taking off, the technology was used primarily by universities, private researchers, and the US military as a simple and effective research and educational tool for communicating and sharing ideas.

Today, education and research still plays an important role on the Internet and will continue to do so for many years to come. In fact, according to the PostGrad section of The Australian dated 14 October 2000, page 4:

"Ranked second to B2B [Business-to-Business] as big internet business, the online learning market is estimated to be worth more than $US740 billion ($1360 billion) annually."

These amounts are worldwide estimates. If we were to take a look at how much the European companies will be spending annually by 2004 on web-based educational purposes, the figure is around $US4 billion ($7.24 billion). (1)

To give us an idea of just how important the online education is becoming, even the US Army wants to deliver web-based education to their US soldiers worldwide. As The Australian reported in January 2001:

"Last month, the US Army selected PricewaterhouseCoopers to lead a project to deliver web-based, degree-oriented education to US soldiers worldwide.

The army's five-year, $US453 million ($820 million) contract was a coup for PricewaterhouseCoopers. The initiative is a landmark effort for web-based education, one that universities across the world will watch closely, along with corporations that may be nervous about using the web for educational purposes." (2)

John Chambers, chief executive officer of the "new economy" e-business, Cisco Systems, also supports the value of the online education. He said:

"The next big killer application on the internet is going to be education [due to the flexible delivery]." (3)

Thus the thrust by businesses already involved in education and the traditional paper publishing media to consider the Internet as another avenue for selling educational and research information given the facts we now have from Mr Peter Bakunowicz of Telstra Multimedia where about 24 per cent of Australian homes currently have personal computers, and for families with school-age children, this figure approaches 60 per cent.(4)

In an article published in the Higher Education Section of The Australian Online entitled, Net Project means Business, by Natalie O'Brien (5):

"July 9: To the world's most famous lateral thinker, Edward de Bono, it seems like a creative solution - using Internet technology to further tertiary education, research and business.

The Rhodes scholar and Internet advocate says the concept from Curtin University also will give thinkers more opportunity to apply their skills.

'"I have come to the belief that the Internet may be the best way to bring together these motivated thinkers as a network, a team or a creative army, and this applies very much to the areas of tertiary education, research and business." said Dr de Bono.

"The technology [Internet] is way ahead of what we ask it to do. We need a lot more thinking about how we can use its possibilities."

Dr de Bono was in Perth yesterday to launch the Electronic Commerce Network [ECN], a joint venture by Curtin University and BankWest.

The education and research unit will focus on Internet-based business and is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia.

Located in the city, the ECN centre will be the hub of the first "virtual university" in the region and a research centre for private enterprise.

It will offer self-directed courses in electronic commerce to postgraduate students so they can study from home. It will also undertake commissioned research from private enterprise.

ECN director Bernard Glasson described its primary functions as education and training, research and development, and commercialisation and technology transfer.

He said the idea grew out of projections about the impact of the Internet on business. The ECN would investigate how the Internet could be used to improve businesses. "It will identify or develop a pool of resources to enable the [West Australian] business community to make effective use of this technology," he said.

The centrepiece of its education application will be a masters of electronic commerce, involving two-thirds coursework and one-third research. Expressions of interest in the project are being sought from individuals and organisations."

The only thing needed to determine in these tough economic times is how to combine effective business principles with education and research to ensure its profitability and viability in the marketplace.

According to Dick Satran's article entitled, Internet Advert Revenue up 83pc:

"Traditional publishers - those that create and sell content [on paper-mediums] - have been slower to find a place in the new order.'(6)

The issues concerning most traditional publishers with the Internet are as follows:

(i) The difficulty in enforcing copyright laws;

SOLUTION: A plug-in available on Adobe Photoshop version 4.0 or higher called Digimarc will allow artists to embed an invisible identifying mark or personal signature directly into their digital graphic artwork. So if another publisher wishes to use the artwork and sells it digitally (i.e. online or on a CD) for profit without permission, the artist can easily determine if this is the case from the personal digital signature.

NOTE: The system of placing identifying marks on digital artwork is not perfect. It is possible to use certain filters and other functions on a graphic package (e.g. cropping) to destroy or render the identifying mark useless. However, further work is continuing into this type of technology.

January 2004

Digimarc Corporation has slowly, but steadily advanced its Digimarc plug-in for Adobe Photoshop with new patented technology to stop people from doing basic manipulations such as rotating an image in an attempt by some users to render the digital signature technology useless. And recently, the company has developed and incorporated a patented technology in the latest Digimarc plug-in (available in the latest Adobe Photoshop CS) to stop people working with images of banknotes and other currencies. Or more effectively (since people can simply delete or move the Digimarc plug-in), people may be allowed to work with the high-quality scanned images of banknotes using Adobe Photoshop, but the printed (or saved) version of the images may contain invisible forensic data tracer as a digital signature such as the date and serial number of the computer and software (so long as the people involved in counterfeiting banknotes are not using Adobe Photoshop version 7.0 or less or even one of the freeware graphic packages such as GIMP!). In this way, law enforcement agencies can track down the offending machine. In other words, at least in the US, the banknotes have their own digital watermarks and if these are scanned as high resolution line art, the plug-in can detect the watermarks.

The code behind Digimarc's anti-counterfeiting technology originally came from a multinational consortium known as the Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group (CBCDG). The consortium includes a number of national banks in Europe, Japan and North America.

The code is reportedly being used in other software and selected colour printers capable of producing high-quality counterfeits of banknotes.

Further details about the anti-counterfeiting technology can be found in US Patent No. 6,427,020 issued 30 July 2002.

(ii) The limited market range of customers who use the Internet on a regular basis;

SOLUTION: According to journalist Ms Danielle Johnston, some online publishers are improving Web site content to help make it more appealing to a wider audience:

"Some online publishers say they are enhancing the overall content of their sites, creating services that will appeal to all users, men as well as women." (7)

(iii) The limited commercial tools available on the Internet to help publishers turn original published material into adequate profits. As the article entitled, Few Making Web Profits, has mentioned:

"Anybody can become a publisher on the Internet, but making money is another story, Web site owners said at an on-line symposium in New York."

Actually getting the entire publishing world to sell electronic versions of magazines and books on CDs or as PDF/e-Books online together with the hard copy version is still very difficult for the simple reason that publishers fear losing profit very quickly because people who access the electronic form will make it freely available online. As UK resident John White asked the publisher/editors of PC Utilities in the July 2002 edition:

"I only started to buy PC Utilities recently, about six issues ago...I generally keep discs from other mags and throw the mag away. However, I find the help and advice pages so good that I have started collecting PC Utilities. There lies the problem.

I simply do not have the room to store the mags. As a suggestion I wonder if you have ever considered putting the magazine on the disc, perhaps as a.pdf file....I am not suggesting that you don't also print the magazine, but an electronic copy would be handy.'

John White, via email

The editors reply was:

"PCU...We are considering the.pdf idea but as you'' probably know,.pdf files are usually not small. This means that there would be less space for the collection of utilities if we included the.pdfs on the coverdisc.

If we put the current issue's.pdfs onto the disc you can guarantee that some bright spark somewhere would put the files online, thus depriving us of the magazine sales which keep us in business!

However, we haven't given up on the idea so watch this space." (8)

Well, there is now a new technology from Adobe for allowing artists/publishers to directly sell their works digitally online (known as electronic books, or e-books) through the Web Buy Technology scheme. As as some publishers admit:

"While electronic books have yet to set the world on fire, experimentation by publishers and developers in the ebook marketplace continues....

'Publishers are unwilling to embrace electronic publishing until better copyright protection systems are in place, mindful of the music industry's ongoing battle to control its works [due to the availability of the MP3 technology]." (9)

Or the alternative is simply to give publishers enough time to make a profit on the sale of their information in printed form and then provide a digital copy of the published works on CD and online for all to benefit. Like some magazine publishers do knowadays, just wait 12 or 24 months, and all the back issues are published electronically on the coverdisc of the next magazine issue.


e-Books from Adobe Systems, Inc. could have much wider appeal and acceptance to the global community after 2004 with its much better digital rights management solutions, better security and Web streaming. For a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages e-Books, click here.

(iv) The limited protection available to customer's personal and financial details when buying digital works from publishers over the Internet.

SOLUTION: Sydney-based Security Domain released a Window's based, 56-bit, email encryption software called SECURattache. The company's managing director, Mr Matthew Babcock said:

"Everyone who has seen this product in Australia and overseas recognises it as the solution for security problems which have held them back from using email over the Internet." (10)

(v) The limited protection available to authors' of original published works in the digital format.

PROBLEM: A security flaw was uncovered in the Adobe e-book technology by a Russian hacker turned entrepreneur by the name of Dmitry Sklyarov sometime in mid-2001. He set up a business called ElcomSoft for the purposes of selling his own software designed to help customers work out their own passwords for common applications in case they were forgotten. Then one day, Sklyarov found a way to crack the PDF security codes. The security flaw was so serious that when Adobe Systems, Inc. finally discovered what happened (thanks to Elcomsoft's web site which advertised the new software for cracking the code protecting Adobe ebooks) and realised he was on his way to a US conference to present a paper on how he did it, it had almost landed Sklyarov in jail by the US Government on the request of Adobe. However, Adobe suddenly dropped all charges against the hacker amid worldwide protests because he did no wrong-doing other than highlighting a simple flaw in the security system which would allow anybody to copy for personal use all the information contained in a legitimately-purchased ebook more efficiently than any other method. Adobe's sole argument was that he had intended to sell the software to allow people to read and distribute their e-books without payment. But this was clearly not the case. Sklyarov had intended to sell the software to people who had legitimate-purchased ebooks for their own personal use. Furthermore, Sklyarov's lawyer Joseph Burton said:

"After all, if we buy a book, why can't we read it in whatever format we want?" (11)

As a result, the complaint from Adobe was withdrawn.

SOLUTION: Adobe is now addressing the serious security flaw in the e-book technology. But this proves one thing: never jump on the bandwagon of new technology straight away until the technology has been proven.

Apparently, all these problems need to be properly solved before traditional publishers can take on this new publishing medium.

But what is so good about the Internet for education?

Perhaps the best way to see the potential of the Internet for educational and research use is through a quote. According to the newspaper article written by reporters Dale Spender and Fiona Stewart of The Australian:

"The new online learning is...interactive. Like conversation, it's a two-way process. So students who are doing online learning don't just receive information - they also make it.

'This is in sharp contrast to the print medium. No matter how good a book - no matter how many people read it or how often - it stays the same. Reading (and studying) has been pretty much the art of following someone else's argument. Online learning is about creating your own." (12)

Is online education really working?

A survey conducted by Australia's largest technical training organisation - Com Tech Education Services - on their employees suggests it may not be quite that successful.

Com Tech claims up to 80,000 responses were received from 57 training managers. Of those employees who used Com Tech's online education services, 44 per cent of respondents thought the online training method to be completely unsuccessful. Where online education provided skills for use in a workplace situation, only 3 per cent considered the approach to be extremely successful.

However, the survey did reveal some other interesting results. In particular, there were certain favourable benefits of online education - namely:

  1. 50 per cent found e-learning to be convenient; and
  2. 66 per cent believed e-learning was successful in reducing the cost of IT training.

Steve Ross, the general manager of Com Tech, says online education is not meant to be a substitute for face-to-face training. In his own words:

"People are getting very excited about the possibilities of e-learning. However I don't believe "anytime, anywhere" learning is always an effective proposition.

'Even when online learning is interactive, it does not have the dynamics of a live training environment. E-learning has potential, but it has a long way to go. It is an effective way to teach long-distance students where there are no other options but the optimum situation is where it is used to complement classroom training. Online training cannot adjust for human frailty - for inattentiveness or loss of interest. In a classroom the tutor can see this and rectify it.

'Learning in isolation can be tough. People should be tested to see if they suit e-learning. Questions we need to be asking are: How do we know it's working? Is it what students want or are we just giving it to them? Is it the best way to learn? Someone should be testing all this out." (13)

What factors are important to a successful online education?

It seems students, well at least postgraduate students, don't mind studying online so long as:

  1. The material (i) is interesting to learn; (ii) is well put together; (iii) has everything that they need to know; and (iv) there is some way to engage the students in the learning process (e.g. a method to help students test their knowledge and check to see if they have learnt correctly);
  2. It is easy to access the educational material; and
  3. There is a feedback system available for questions students may have about the material online.

Otherwise, students who are young or find learning in isolation to be difficult may need additional motivation techniques to learn online. The importance of being self-motivated while learning online is well-supported by Felix Borstein, managing director of Parkside Consulting, an IT contracting and recruitment agency:

"E-learning allows people to do training if, when and where they want. However it works best when people are self-motivated. We offer our contractors both CD-ROM and Web-delivered courses, backed up by discussion groups, white papers and a mentoring system which allows you online access to a tutor 24 hours a day.

'The only disadvantage of e-learning as opposed to CD-ROM is the Web charges. Most of our contractors, however, prefer Web-delivered technology to CD-ROM because you can't lose it, the kids can't use it as a frisbee and the dog can't chew it up [unless the dog finds the laptop, the keyboard or the mouse a tasty alternative]." (14)

Hence students who enter university are generally much better motivated to learn on their own or in small groups among themselves than younger students. It is here where online education can be extremely successful. As Professor Max Angus of Western Australia's Edith Cowan University said:

"...from what I've seen so far, most postgraduate students like studying online. If it's easy to access and the coursework has been well put together, and if they're getting enough feedback, then most students are likely to enjoy it." (15)

And how should online educational information be presented?

Well, certainly not by slapping together a bit of text together and see what happens. As Helen Chesterman, general manager of the online management systems learning provider, Pathlore, has understood:

"Much of the online learning currently available has been done as a rush job with no real thought behind it. Companies are keen to jump on the bandwagon of a rapidly growing market. They are taking instructor-based training courses and transferring them online. E-learning will not work without proper course development geared to the medium [and to the people who will learn from it]." (16)

To get an idea of how educational information for the Internet should be presented (well, at least for the older and well-motivated students in our community], IT expert Phillip Greenspin, a professor at the Massachusett's Institute of Technology and chairman of US software company Ars Digita, made it pretty clear what he wanted from his online education needs:

"None of this bells-and-whistles stuff....I want the information sweet and simple. As quickly as possible. Custom-made for me, so I can just take what I want to do the job and then go on to the next one." (17)

As for the younger group of students who need that little bit of extra motivation to learn, adequate pictures, movies and sounds with just a hint of interactivity is vitally important for a successful online education.

Should e-learning replace traditional learning techniques?

No. The information online is not sufficiently powerful enough to rapidly transform our minds and so help us to replace our need for practical "motor-control" training requirements. The information available online in its current "early stage of development" form is mainly useful for learning the theory of something. As Helen Chesterman said:

"[Online learning is] effective if you have a course where there is a balance between theory and practical. The theory can go online, which frees up both the student's and the instructor's time in the classroom [to ask questions and apply the theory in some way]." (18)

In other words, teachers should not rely on e-learning as the panacea for every training situation. Use it as just another tool in the arsenal of educating people.

So what's the future for e-learning? Where will it go?

Again a quote will suffice. Here is a glimpse of what one person sees as the future for online education. The quote comes from Microsoft's national education market manager, Don Carlson:

"A proper e-learning environment must be more than just reading material off a screen. What will drive the next phase of e-learning will be the need to ensure content can be adapted to different students and the provision of an environment in which this can happen." (19)

As for the developers whose job it is to create e-learning material for the consumers, their lives will be getting more hectic as time spent on developing the e-learning packages will shorten. As once stated:

"Not too long ago, content developers had four to six months to create an average two-hour learning program, increasing competition and the velocity of the new economy no longer allow e-learning companies to spend six months or even six weeks on the development of a course. In the IT and software industries, for example, R&D cycles have accelerated with staggering speed, and user software has been commoditized. Similar developments can be expected in the e-learning industry. Development cycles are predicted to shorten by 20% every year to two or three weeks by 2004....This imperative will drive more template-based designs and fewer custom graphics. Learning objects will be created in smaller chunks and reusuable formats. As a consequence, the industry will become more efficient and competitive."

To be able to develop template-based designs, many developers will be using databases for effective e-learning. In other words, the humble database will permit the design developers to concentrate on the design work (e.g. page templates, password-security for courses that require a payment from students, and much more) and then the content developers (or trainers) will supply the educational material for the databases.

For example, at Catalyst Interactive, one of Australia's leading e-learning companies, they employ a fully scalable database driven system for delivering educational material on the web known as LearnSwitch. It works on a two-tiered template system. The first template is known as the Background Template. This is where all the navigational tools, header graphics, footer information and so on are added. Then a second template known as the Page Layout Template specifies how to display the actual dynamic content (or training material). This may be nothing more than specifying the number of columns, where the columns are to be positioned, and whether or not to display a picture as well. Finally, the database application pulls these two templates together and presents the final Delivered Page to the student.

Otherwise, individuals and companies who want to deliver free educational material online can do so with a simple web page, like the one you are looking at right now.