Phase Diagrams: a blast from the past

January 9, 2012 at 10:38 am | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment
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The University IT systems were out of action for a few days (as previously noted) and that led to an email to me from Julio, a mechatronic engineer in Guatamala. He was trying to get to a website about phase diagrams in alloys that I helped to create in 1997 – and having taken a fresh look at it, I thought it would be a good topic for a post.

screenshot from phase diagrams website

At that time, I was working for the Interactive Learning Centre (ILC), an institutional project funded by the national TLTP programme. Phillipa Reed and Julian Bailey from the Department of Engineering Materials had produced an interactive guide to phase diagrams as a stand-alone application using the Toolbook multimedia programming tool. This meant that it needed to be installed on every computer that students would use, so I was tasked with turning the guide into a website that could be accessed from any computer. It thus represented a turning point in the world of ‘computer-based learning’ – a realisation that from now on, everything needed to be online.

Back in 1997, patterned backgrounds were the very latest trend in web-design; it looks so old-fashioned now! And of course it had to fit on the VGA screens of that era (256 colours, 640×480 pixels) so the diagrams are a bit small. It was also designed to be as bandwidth-efficient as possible, so all the GIF diagrams are optimised and less than 3Kb each. The aim was to make it fairly slick over a dial-up modem connection (remember those?)

However, the fundamentals are still really sound; good clear diagrams, clearly-written concise text, simple navigation, built-in help and a linked glossary. The part I am most pleased with are the quizzes I added, which took advantage of the newly-available HTML 2.0 client-side image maps – and these really transform it from an information source into a learning resource.

The website has been at the same address since 1997, so that, its basic utility and the fact that it has always been openly available mean that it now comes up #2 on Google (after Wikipedia) if you search for ‘phase diagrams’. This is definitely one of the world’s older ‘open educational resources’ and its still going strong!

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