Edition 05 of the Astronomy On-line Newspaper

Some thoughts about Astronomy On-Line

I believe that the following text - which has been adapted from a message that was sent to all Astronomy On-Line organisers some time ago - may be of more general interest. Wherever relevant, the information has been correspondingly updated.

It is now four weeks since the Astronomy On-Line project officially started and we are already past the 50 percent mark of the total duration now foreseen. The hot phase will begin less than three weeks from now!

For this reason, I think that it may now be useful to summarize the initial experience as seen here from ESO. These considerations of course represent a personal view and many of the organisers and participants may not fully share them, but I hope they will contribute to the continued, proper development of this unique programme. In any case, we now have more than a theoretical basis for the judgment of the performance and future potential of Astronomy On-Line project.

In what follows, I should like to mention what I perceive as some of its strong points as well as some apparent `problems' of different degrees of complexity. I do think, however, that all of these will be solved successfully in due time if all forces are optimally combined. Never forget that, as the first of its type and scope, Astronomy On-Line has necessarily been conceived as a pilot programme that may blaze the trail for similar programmes in other disciplines. As any project of this type, its implementation is a learning process for all involved, especially for the organisers!

Some Strengths

There is no doubt that Astronomy On-Line has so far been received very well in most quarters and that the advertising effort through the various media and also directly to the schools has borne fruit. We have analyzed the remarks made by about 500 groups at the time of registration and find that there are important differences from country to country in the way they heard about Astronomy On-Line. We expect to publish these statistics at a later time when more groups have registered. This will undoubtedly be particularly interesting for the individual National Steering Committees.

The number of registrations is excellent, now over 550 participating groups in 31 countries in Europe and on four other continents. While a prognosis is difficult, it does seem safe to expect over 600 groups before the deadline on 15 November, with a total membership of over 3000 persons. The geographical distribution is also quite good and the current Internet connectivity in the various countries appears to be reflected in the individual numbers (see Newsletter No. 3, article No. 1). Many groups still have no URL address (Web-page) of their own, but we are approached daily by groups which have just installed theirs and now request completion of the group files.

The number of sponsorships has been significant and in several countries, the net providers have become involved. The reaction of some Ministries has been very positive and in some countries, Astronomy On-Line has clearly accelerated the drive towards Internet connectivity at the schools, cf. the article by Knud Jepsen in this issue of the Newspaper. It is more difficult to judge the sponsor situation at the local level, since comparatively few reports have been received sofar.

The media response seems to have been good during the first phase. We have received quite a few clippings and we know that Astronomy On-Line has been covered on radio and TV in some countries. It will obviously be most desirable to receive at some time more complete reports about the situation in the respective areas.

The lunar eclipse and solar eclipse projects have clearly been very well managed by the Projects Group and others involved. These events have been followed by a large number of participants and the wide public has been well reached in many places. The organisers have achieved very quick publication of the results afterwards and we are now looking forward to the `final reports'. There is little doubt that the overall interest in Astronomy On-Line has increased because of these events.

The Sun-Earth collaborative project is a most positive example of the combination of many different fields of physics. The organisers in Norway have done a great job, and we look forward to the outcome of this experience with much interest. Other collaborative projects (Hale-Bopp, meteors, variable stars, solar parallax, light pollution) are more or less ready and will become available over the next two weeks.

The number of observatories which have decided to contribute with observing time to Astronomy On-Line is significant and the homepages for the corresponding telescopes and instruments have been very well prepared. If the weather cooperates, the participants will undoubtedly experience an exciting time when the requested observations are made.

Some challenges

Astronomy On-line is a pilot project, and it has been obvious from the beginning that the launch would not be without problems with various degrees of complexity. I here mention some of these, in the expectation that this may contribute to their solution.

While the technical implementation of the Web pages and the structure has gone quite smoothly thanks to the professional work by the Webmasters in many places, it has been less straightforward than originally thought to achieve the proper presentation of the individual items. In fact, it has been a substantial effort by the authors and the Web-people to transform most of these into the form in which they are now available within Astronomy On-Line. The difficulties have been connected in some cases to the language and the lay-out of text and images, in other cases to the transfer from another format into HTML, which is the natural medium for the WWW.

Secondly, I am slightly worried that in general many of the items sofar available are a bit complex, and that there is not yet sufficient material available which will appeal to the less experienced participants and the lower age groups. For this reason, I think that we must now do all we can to set up soonest possible more Try Your Skills exercises which cater to the participants at the basic and middle levels. Also we must attempt to have more Treasure Hunts and more software (also for fun) at the earliest possible moment.

I note that there has sofar been too little use of the E-mail Facility with the attached Communications Archive. This may be because many participants have not yet felt the need to communicate actively, in which case we should do our best to stimulate this, or it could be that the proposed procedure is still perceived by many as being too complicated. I therefore hope that more messages will soon be sent, also between the Steering Committees and their members, in order to show the way for others.

In view of the exceptional number of participating groups, we will have a difficult time in satisfying every wish for observations within the available observing time. This will be a real challenge for the small Observing Programmes Committee which now will be established here at ESO with a few professional astronomers and educators as members. The committee will start its work during the next days, as soon as the Observations' Shop has been fully opened (one of the next days) and the first proposals are received.

We still have to open the Talk to the Professionals' Shop. This will most likely not happen before mid-November. There have already been many positive expressions from various observatories, but I would be glad if even more would consider to participate, so that this event becomes a very major one in the hot phase on November 18-22, 1996.

We are also somewhat behind in the field of Astronomical Archives. We must make a special effort to get more people involved in setting this up.

The International Steering Committee will still have to decide about the detailed activities during the hot phase; this will happen in the ISC meeting on November 2. We will then have to ensure that the largest number of participants have the greatest possible experience, both in terms of education and fun! This includes the final event.

Whither Astronomy On-Line?

Astronomy On-Line has already developed into an educational tool with a great potential for the future. It could undoubtedly serve as an efficient backbone for EAAE links and activities in the coming years, possibly also beyond the geographical area covered by its present members.

It is therefore obvious that we must soon begin to think seriously about what happens after November 22, 1996. The present WWW set-up may have to be transformed and designated persons will ultimately have to take over the continuous update and maintenance under the auspices of the EAAE.

In this connection, the official assessment of Astronomy On-Line and its impact, now being prepared by Jari Multisilta (Finland) and Franck Pettersen (Norway), will help us to formulate the best approach to the future of Astronomy On-line. For this study, a questionnaire will be distributed to the participating groups at the appropriate moment, requesting information about their expereince with Astronomy On-Line. We hope that all groups will contribute to the objective assessment of this project by responding to this survey!

Your opinion is welcome!

I shall be glad to receive your reactions to the thoughts above (preferably by email to rwest@eso.org).

I thank you in advance for all support you are able to provide which will help to ensure that Astronomy On-Line may continue to develop as well as it has until now!

Richard West
ESO Education and Public Relations Department

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Last update: Oct 29, 1996