Academia gets creative with Web services

An MIT-Microsoft research project called iCampus aims to show that Web services can help realize the promise of the Web browser: broad access to information.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read
A Web service can help you catch a bus. Or test an electronic circuit from a dorm room. Or even take English writing tests in a new way.

These creative uses of Web services--a method for connecting software systems over the Internet--at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stand in stark contrast to the more mundane, workaday uses of Web services at corporations. But these applications suggest that Web services may be an important link in realizing the vision of broad access to information originally promised by the Web browser.

The ideas for tracking bus locations or performing technical experiments over the Web came out of a joint research program between Microsoft and MIT. The goal of the initiative, called iCampus, is to improve the quality of campus life through technology. Although the five-year, $25 million program has been in place since 1999, the broad industry support of Web services standards over the past two years is giving professors and students the means to unlock access to hitherto hard-to-access information--and change the learning experience in the process.

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For Microsoft, its $25 million investment is far from purely altruistic. On top of gaining more credibility in the academic research world, Microsoft is garnering valuable insights into how it should design future software. Although iCampus is specifically focused on using technology to improve teaching, Microsoft said the lessons it is learning can be applied to business, particularly to Microsoft's primary customer: the information worker. The university's experiments with Web services, collaboration, security, Tablet PCs and visualization tools will translate directly back into Microsoft's product planning cycle, according to Randy Hinrichs, group research manager of learning science and technology at Microsoft.

"I've learned that it's hard to see the difference between knowledge workers and students on campus. They do the same thing--they take data that's out there and they go to their customer to deliver knowledge assets," Hinrichs said. "We got lucky and got more than what we bargained for in terms of helping us define how products should integrate into fields outside of education."

iCampus is another effort by Microsoft to expand its presence in the academic community, where future professional software programmers are trained. In an ongoing competition to gain market share against Java tools providers and open-source software, Microsoft is trying to make access to its Web services development tools simpler for students and faculty.

Meanwhile, back at the iLab
At MIT, Web services has emerged as one of the central themes of the iCampus project, said Hal Abelson, the co-director of MIT's Educational Technology Council and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Because Web services protocols have industry backing, universities and companies are more willing to invest in and experiment with the software technology.

"All Web services are is distributed computing, which people have been talking about since 1983," said Abelson. "(But) the ability to open up information allows us to create a new kind of resource that just wasn't there before."

Consider iLab. The project to offer remote access to lab equipment was conceived before Web services standards had fully gelled. But with Web services underpinning their applications, MIT academics can imagine instituting a barter system with other universities to share time on expensive testing equipment used by students across the globe.

iLab was born in microelectronics classes taught by electrical engineering professor Jesus del Alamo. In 1998, he rigged up a system to let microelectronics students at MIT test transistors over the Internet, rather than requiring the students to be in the same room as the equipment. The obvious benefit for students was more convenient access to labs. But del Alamo could see potentially more significant benefits for MIT. With a networked system, the university could schedule access to expensive equipment more efficiently and open up access to its gear by other academic institutions.

Through the iCampus initiative, del Alamo and other colleagues expanded the basic idea of remote lab testing to other academic disciplines. They chose Web services as the software to link highly specialized lab equipment with university networks and the Internet.

MIT set up a cross-discipline team called the Center for Educational Technology Initiatives. The group is in the process of building a generalized system designed to allow universities to bring the Web to many types of lab equipment--from heat exchange machines used in chemical engineering classes to shaking tables used to test the sturdiness of civil engineering projects.

"The attractiveness of Web services is that we thought that the protocols would be much more likely to not be tripped up by different network policies at different universities," said Jud Harward, senior architect at MIT's iLab project. "We wanted something vendor-independent that would work across organizational lines."

MIT has already used an early version of its lab-sharing system with a partner at the University of Singapore and is working on a project to extend lab access to African universities as well.

Surfing at the bus stop
Another iCampus Web services project, spearheaded by MIT graduate students, received $30,000 in funding to improve the campus life of students on the roadways of Cambridge, Mass., and Boston, rather than in its ivory towers.

The brainchild of two MIT graduate students--Salil Soman and Krishnan Sriram--ShuttleTrack is a system that lets students find out where shuttle buses are located as they drive along their routes. Rather than stand waiting in the cold New England winter weather hoping they haven't missed the last bus home, students can use their PCs or Web-enabled handheld devices to check where a bus is.

The application, which was written with Microsoft's Visual C# development in about six months, uses GPS tracking equipment and cellular modems attached below bus seats to transmit location information to a central server in MIT's transportation office. The application stores information in an XML-based Web services data format, which allows people with many different devices to check bus locations. Using Web services formats to store and publish data, the application can distribute scheduling information in a variety of formats, including plain text or graphics, said Sriram.

Web services has largely been used to ease technology integration woes at large corporations, but one of the much-hyped benefits of Web services is the ability to buy online access to software, rather than installing applications in-house. Project leaders from another iCampus initiative are doing exactly that: selling its test-taking software application as a service.

The iCampus/MIT Online Assessment Tool (iMoat) application, which is already in use at MIT and other universities, is a replacement for freshman-placement writing exams. Students register to take a test and are sent reading material via e-mail. Three days later they submit an essay. A teacher uses the same iMoat application to grade the exam on a PC.

Rather than asking students to use pen and paper to write on a subject unprepared, iMoat was meant to give students a more realistic setting for composing essays--that is, writing on a PC after some preparation, said Leslie Perelman, the principal investigator of iMoat. The Web services-based system is also less costly than sending dozens of professional graders to a hotel to read through thousands of exams, and it can be more competitive with machine scoring systems, he said.

"This is a hard time to get universities to buy or subscribe to a service because even universities are cutting budgets. (Now educators) can tell university administrators that they can save money," Perelman said.

For MIT, the iCampus project is not specifically about Web services as much as it is about using technology to change the learning experience, in part by extending access to information as widely as possible. Like MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative to publish course material online, the use of Web services in iCampus reflects MIT's goal of "strengthening the intellectual commons by putting information out there and sharing," Abelson said.