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Teaching Web Science (Web Architecture and Web Ethics)

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In July 2012 we taught a course for the German National Summer School for high school students. The course consisted of 50 hours over 14 days. Due to some specific settings of the Summer School we had to make a few adjustments to the format of our curriculum and lectures. Still we gathered some good experiences for future teaching. The main lesson learnt was that knowledge of the Internet protocol suite contributes to a better understanding of the decentralized and open aspects of the web. This leads to a better comprehension of the ethical aspects of the web like net neutrality, copyright, relevance paradox, censorship and others. We propose that any curriculum about Web Science should include a fair part of lectures on Web Architecture and the Internet protocol Stack.

Course context (level, students, discipline, etc.)

The course was designed for 16 highly gifted high school students (11th and 12th grade). The level was supposed to be manageable for a second year undergraduate student. Since our students came from different grades and schools we were forced to sacrifice some course time to teach some basic programming skills. Thus we could not cover all the aspects of Web Science. Instead we focused on three main course objectives:

Course objectives and targeted competencies

By the end of the course our students should…

  1. understand the current web architecture in particular the decentralized and open aspects.
  2. gain the ability to form and defend a solid opinion on currently ongoing ethical discussions related to the Web.
  3. realize that the study of the Web needs much broader skill set than knowledge about Computer Science.

Course content (Structure, sections, topics, references)

All students were asked to prepare a talk and read the book ”Weaving the Web” by Sir Tim Berners-Lee before the summer school started. Ten of the talks included the technical foundations starting with binary numbers going all the way to the application layer and all the necessary protocols. This included the theoretical study of IP, TCP and HTTP as well as routing algorithms (BGP ) and DNS. To ensure a better understanding the students had to form groups and implement a simple Web Server and a Web Client that were able to process HTTP1.0 GET requests during course time. This was done using the Java Programming Language and the socket classes from the Java API. These topics have been covered in the first week of the course. In the second half we focused on the ethics of the web. After each talk on an ethical topic which was supposed to give an overview for about 20 minutes we entered a 2 hour group discussion. For example for the discussion on net neutrality we knew the following groups of interests from the overview talk: Large internet providers, big web companies, small web companies, politicians, consumers. Students were randomly assigned to one of these groups. Within 10 minutes they had to prepare a list of arguments that would reflect the interests of their particular group as well as arguments they would expect from other groups. While discussing the issue on a round table they had to find a good solution respecting the technical nature of the web and the interests of their group.

Evaluation methods (Tests, projects, papers,etc.)

Even though the Summer School is very competitive participation is voluntary so there can’t be an exam or something similar in the end. Also all work had to be completed during the 50 hours course time without any home work assignments. We had three evaluation methods to ensure the comprehension of the course content.

1. Hacking Project: As already mentioned students implemented a Web Server and Web Client during the first half of the course. Being in groups of 2 or 3 students and being new to programming we teachers helped students out which gave us a nice feedback whether or not students understood the content.

2. Oral presentation: After the middle of the course students had to prepare and give a presentation to be consumed by an interdisciplinary audience i.e the students from other courses of the summer school, which are all not covering any IT topics. We asked the students to create a theatre role-play of what happens if someone types www.wikipedia.org into a web browser and hits the enter key. All students placed routing tables on the seats for the audience, created TCP / IP packets (filled with candy that represented the time to live) and routed DNS requests as well as HTTP requests together with the TCP handshake around the audience in the class room demonstrating that the basic decentralized web architecture was understood by everyone in the course.

3. Paper Writing: During the last days of the course the students were expected to collectively prepare a 25 pages documentation with scientific standards of what they have learned during the summer school. The process of creating this documentation is not only guided by us teachers but gives also a nice feedback loop to see if the goals of the course have been achieved.

Overall we can say that the concept of the course worked really well. Especially putting such a high focus on the Web Architecture and actually letting students implement protocols helped to gain a deeper understanding.

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Published at DZone with permission of René Pickhardt , DZone MVB .

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