Rapid Construction of Learning Resources using Microcosm Pro

Hugh Davis [Electronics and Computer Science and Multicosm Lt

The World Wide Web has caused a revolution in learning and teaching. Using the standard Web, teachers can publish on-line their syllabuses, schemes of work, teaching notes, work sheets, coursework, worked examples, and any other material. And they can use the hypertext features to interconnect these materials and other relevant materials on the Web.

These facilities do not seem to be terribly sophisticated when compared, for example, with the features of a Managed Learning Environment (see article above) and yet the Web has been phenomenally successful. Why? The secret is the universal access. I can put a worksheet onto my server and as soon as I have distributed the URL to my students they can immediately access it. It will not matter what type of hardware they have, or what version of the software they have; it will not matter whether they are on campus or off campus. They will not necessarily even have to login to a University system in order to see the materials and, I, as the teacher can make this information available simply by saving a word processor file as html (hypertext markup language) in the correct place.

However, in spite of the tremendous leap forward allowing users control of their own data, the vanilla Web is nothing more than that; a system to allow users to publish data with some simple interconnectivity provided by the hypertext links.

An Introduction to Open Hypertext
Hypertext systems were first noticed by the teaching and training communities in the late 1980’s and systems such as Guide, Hypercard and Asymetrix Toolbook soon acquired a reputation for allowing relatively naïve computer users to build learning resources. But these systems had their limitations:

  • They mostly required the author to have some programming skills to do anything interesting;

  • They required that all data files were converted into some internal format;

  • Since links were only stored inside the actual data files, it wasn’t possible to make links inside read-only materials, such as on a CD-ROM or inside files that belonged to someone else

  • They had no concept of allowing different views of the information for different users;

  • Users could only interact passively with the systems, by clicking buttons. They could not add their own data, links, paths or annotations.
As a result of such limitations, when the Technology in Learning and Teaching Programme (TLTP) began in 1992, many consortia expressed interest in Microcosm, a prototypical open hypertext system, produced by the Multimedia Research Group at the University of Southampton.

Microcosm is a program which allows the author (or teacher or instructor) to collect files of almost any format (word processed files, graphics, spreadsheets, databases and even executable programs), and to incorporate them into a resource base. Microcosm allows users to add their own links, data files, paths and annotations just as if they were the original author, but kept separate from the original author’s materials. Microcosm achieves this by keeping links separate from the actual data files. Whenever a file is shown, Microcosm will collect the links from the active databases and insert them at the correct place in the data. Thus, new links are added without interfering with the published materials, and using separate databases of links it is possible to present different views of the same data to different users. In the face of growing use of the Web, Microcosm is still seen by many innovators as the first of a new generation of hypertext authoring environments.

In 1995 Multicosm Ltd was started, with the license to develop and market the award-winning Microcosm Plus, aimed at the Interactive Electronic Manual market. Recently, however, the company detected renewed interest in open hypertext systems from the educational market and in 1999 produced Microcosm Pro, a product that is easier to use and compatible with the Web.

Some Microcosm projects are:

1. Software Teaching of Modular Physics (The SToMP project)
SToMP is a TLTP consortium led by the University of Surrey. The consortium built modules (equivalent to a whole first year module) for Measurement and Uncertainty, Waves and Optics.

The resources that the consortium collected on-line included a complete collection of notes, and a couple of text books. There are two outstanding features of the SToMP project:

  • the large number of simulations (programmed in Visual Basic) that allow students to “perform” experiments and

  • the on-line glossary, based on Microcosm’s generic link technology that builds automatic links from every occurrence of any keyword in the physics domain.
2. The US Navy
The US Navy have quite a different requirement. Their instructors must deliver courses written by others, without altering content, but adding new material if they wish. Using Microcosm the instructors are able to show the students their PowerPoint lessons and html lessons, exactly as intended, but with personal links to extra materials of their own choice. Using Microcosm the course developers are able to develop a resource-base of materials (such as on-line manuals) to go with the lesson, which can be viewed by the student outside the lesson.

3. Tulip
The Tulip project was set up by the Department of Psychiatry at Southampton. It uses a Toolbook front end to present a number of patient case studies. The student is able to watch a video of a consultation with the patient, and then access the patient’s case notes, order tests and access appropriate medical references to treat the patient. Although most of the student’s interactions are with the Toolbook front end, Microcosm acts as the resource database, and will present a large number of document formats containing appropriate links. The Tulip project is released on a CD, which is produced by the Microcosm “Publish and Go” wizard.

4. Historical Archives
Microcosm has been used on a few occasions to publish parts of historical archives (including Southampton’s Mountbatten archive). In these cases, pictures and texts may be scanned and sometimes retyped into whatever data format is most suitable. Microcosm will then present all these picture formats, and will allow links inside these pictures (e.g. from a picture of a person in a crowd to their autobiography). Furthermore the Microcosm search engine allows very rapid searches through very large collections of typed documents, so that potential links may be discovered automatically in much the same way that a Web search engine works.

5. The University of Southampton Language Centre
The Language Centre uses Microcosm to host an on-line version of their “topic boxes” which contain collections of articles and worksheets on a range of topics in the chosen language. Although they use Toolbook to provide a glossy front-end to the collection, the collection itself is constantly growing, and Microcosm’s generic link technology means that new documents that are imported will immediately have links to other places, particularly to the on-line dictionary. Microcosm itself is available in English, French, German and Danish versions.

Microcosm and the Web
Microcosm Pro is Web compatible. A Microcosm project that has been put together on a local hard disk may be placed onto a Web server. A user may then point their browser at this, and Microcosm will start to run the project, collecting the files from the Web server using Hyper Text Transport Protocol (http). If your machine does not have Microcosm loaded, then it will download a Microcosm plug-in which will first install the essential run-time components of Microcosm before viewing the project. Using this technique we can deliver and link files of many sorts (not just html) over the Web.

Furthermore, when it comes to viewing html files, it is possible to load them into the Microcosm browser, and the author is able to create Microcosm links which are indistinguishable from native html links.

Microcosm Pro is available for Windows 95, 98 and NT. A 90Mhz Pentium with 16MB of memory is the recommended minimum hardware. Multicosm continues to provide Microcosm Pro free to Computing Services, and the install disk can be borrowed from Paul Riddy in the Centre for Learning and Teaching. More information about Microcosm Pro can be found at:


Submitted by Hugh Davis Dec 1999
© University of Southampton