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.
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
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 1980s 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:
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.
- 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
- Since links were only stored inside the actual data files, it wasnt
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.
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 authors 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
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:
2. The US Navy
- the large number of simulations (programmed in Visual Basic) that
allow students to perform experiments and
- the on-line glossary, based on Microcosms generic link technology
that builds automatic links from every occurrence of any keyword in
the physics domain.
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.
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 patients case notes, order tests and access appropriate
medical references to treat the patient. Although most of the students
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 Southamptons 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 Microcosms 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:
by Hugh Davis Dec 1999
University of Southampton