The best educational entrees on the World Wide Web are served fresh, not frozen, according to the judges for the 1996 National Information Infrastructure Awards.
The contest, which is organized by a California research company and sponsored by a host of high-tech companies, recognizes excellence on the Internet.
Winners in the 10 categories, which included education and children's sites, were announced last week in New York City. The contest, in its second year, drew more than 825 entries, up from 550 in 1995, said a spokeswoman for the organizer, Access Media Inc., based in Santa Monica, Calif.
The winning education project, the Jason VII Project Undersea Internet Site, used the Web to take students on an undersea exploration of a coral reef off the coast of Florida. At prearranged times during two weeks in April, students used special software and the Web to watch live video of marine life and to converse with scientists as they worked in a submarine.
The Web--the popular, highly visual part of the Internet--gives students who are otherwise isolated an "ongoing living curriculum that's not canned and not processed," said Glen Kessler, a co-chairman of the education panel of judges.
Other education finalists also offered the immediacy of nearly live science. A site sponsored by NASA presented the latest space images from the Hubble Space Telescope; another posted daily bulletins from an archaeological dig in Egypt.
But the best Web excursions do more than take students to another place, added Mr. Kessler, who is the chairman emeritus of the U.S. Distance Learning Association. They are multilayered experiences in which students read background materials, participate in joint activities or experiments, and receive mentoring from adult experts or other students.
Web experiences can be educationally powerful even if they are not in real time as long as they are conceived and designed well, Mr. Kessler said.
Cells Alive!, a Web archive of facts and video and still images about human cells and their microscopic adversaries, was also an education finalist. One section uses images from an electron microscope to present the step-by-step drama of how human cells react when a splinter penetrates the skin.
In addition to the images, Cells Alive! is also well designed, which Mr. Kessler said is another earmark of the best Web sites.
Logical organization and lucid indexes serve users quickly, even those who aren't sure what they are looking for. "One of the unique things about Web applications now is [that] you often go in and don't have a clue what you want," Mr. Kessler said. "Then you find just the right information that you never knew you needed."
The NII winner in the children's category was a Web site devoted to children who are awaiting adoption. Faces of Adoption: America's Waiting Children, has photographs of hundreds of children; information about their health, education, and personalities; and resources to help potential adoptive parents begin the adoption process.
The site, which is run by the National Adoption Center, a nonprofit adoption-assistance organization in Philadelphia, shows the power of the Internet to address human needs, said Jean Armour Polly, a co-chairwoman of the judges in the children's category. "Even a casual user who is thinking about adoption can very easily find everything," said Ms. Polly, the author of The Internet Kids Yellow Pages, a resource book published by Osborne McGraw-Hill in Berkeley, Calif.
Other finalists exemplified the evolution of the Web as a venue for teenagers, said Laura Breeden, the other co-chairwoman of the children's category. The FreeZone and Cyberteens sites, for example, feature teenagers' writing, art, and music in magazine-like formats, as well as bulletin boards for exchanges of open missives on hobbies, politics, or prospective romance.
Both free sites are products of companies that represent a new breed of Web entrepreneur. Free Range Media, based in Seattle, creates FreeZone; Mountain Lake Software Inc., in San Francisco, puts out Cyberteen. Their commercial goal is to draw large, focused audiences so that the sites can be a market for sales of merchandise, advertising, and services.
But the sites also allow teenagers to "explore issues relating to identity," said Ms. Breeden, a former U.S. Department of Commerce official who advises nonprofit groups on Internet strategies.
When youngsters communicate to a real audience and not for a school project, they take more care and show more pride of authorship, Ms. Breeden said.
In other sites that she reviewed, students may join political movements or start their own.
"Most exciting from an educational standpoint," she said, "was the possibility for children to collaborate with other children and teachers across large distances."