Chapter 6


This document described several aspects of the design and development of the UNITE system at the University of Kansas. The system provides the ability to browse and search hierarchically indexed resources in a wide range of media types (text, images, multimedia, etc.). The server provides remote access to Science and Mathematics resources by geographically distributed K-12 teachers and students, but it can easily be adapted to work with any hierarchically structured domain. For example, we have recently constructed a similar database of information about area businesses for the Chamber of Commerce for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.

The server software supports mirroring, which helps distribute the client load, and enables the client to try alternative servers when its first choice is unavailable. The growth of the database is supported by the Contributor software which helps manage the introduction of material produced by geographically distributed users into the database. The system has been in use by its target audience for over two years and services thousands of requests per week. The experience gained in implementing the system has demonstrated a number of ways in which providing usable services with the WWW presents unique challenges. As such, it has demonstrated the need for modifications of current methods, the need for new abilities, and the fact that the WWW is still a vital and evolving entity.

One area of new research that is underway concerns the relative benefits of different browsing structures on the user's understanding of the information domain. The browsing structure based on a single indexing dimension (e.g. curriculum) is easy to use but provides a somewhat constrained understanding of the scope of the resource. We have recently implemented the "EduLette" browser that randomly selects resources from a given domain. We plan to refine this random browser so that users become actively involved in identifying the dimensions of the domain they wish to investigate. We anticipate that this targeted random browsing coupled with the existing browsing structures will elicit a more robust understanding of the domain and result in the user constructing more meaningful free text queries.

We are continuing to refine the interface and features of the UNITE system based on user recommendations with the goal of developing a useful system for a wide range of users. This includes accessibility from numerous platforms, improvements to the contributing and review functions, and the ability to easily locate meaningful resources in the rapidly expanding collections on the Internet.

We are also investigating the application of the UNITE platform to other possible research areas. We are beginning to apply this technology to the needs of a small working groups. This will give us the opportunity to investigate how to use WWW and HTML methods to provide effective user interfaces for tools supporting group activites. We are also interested in applying this technology to providing user interfaces for sophisticated information retrieval approaches to database access, and for providing access to new types of information including real-time video.