March/April 2000 // Case Studies
JavaScript inter scientiam artesque antiquas: Using JavaScript to Provide Resources for Teaching Classics and the Humanities
by Jean Alvares
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Jean Alvares "JavaScript inter scientiam artesque antiquas: Using JavaScript to Provide Resources for Teaching Classics and the Humanities" The Technology Source, March/April 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Many wonderful technologies are available for instructors wishing to provide interactive, online resources for students. These technologies, however, often require the purchase of special hardware or expensive software, or compel students and teachers to use computer labs, which have limited hours and many potential users. Although we can expect to solve many of these problems in the coming decade, we should not pass up useful interim solutions. Based on my experience, I am convinced that JavaScript offers a powerful, inexpensive, and relatively easy-to-use tool for educators and students.

Cracking the Code: Developing My First JavaScript Exercises

In 1995, I learned to create my first Web pages by reading the source code of pages already on the Web. In 1998, the increasing number of pages containing JavaScript-created buttons, fields, and forms roused my curiosity. I soon located the two-line JavaScript that generated a simple alert button. By duplicating this script and substituting my own values for the script's values (for the button's name and response), I could easily create multiple-choice questions that would provide students immediate feedback. Soon afterward I found the three-line script for a button that, when clicked, generated a prompt asking the student to supply an answer, and then provided feedback by showing the student's input and the correct answer. By using these JavaScripts to make a series of multiple choice and short answer questions, I easily created a series of review pages for my mythology class, accessed through my Myth Metalink page. From these pages students can e-mail corrections to me or provide other feedback. Since I give extra credit for comments, I was able to see which students accessed what pages, how many times, etc. Although such drills are pedagogically conservative, my students, as well as many outsiders (see below) have found these pages very helpful for learning and review. They did, however, encounter some problems, which fell into three categories:

  • The difficulty of getting to labs for students without personal computers
  • Student-owned computers and software that cannot handle JavaScript (an increasingly rare problem as students update their browsers and AOL has incorporated Netscape technology)
  • Resistance to technology (these attitudes are also diminishing each year)

Teaching to the World

These pages, especially the one on Roman mythology (which received over three thousand 'hits' in its first year), have attracted the attention of students and teachers all over the United States and beyond; I've even gotten queries from Taiwan and Korea. In response to a request by a high school teacher, I created some drills over Latin noun forms; some teachers and creators of resource pages (see the link at Latin Online) have included links to my drills, which their students are now using. I have also developed exercises on classical Greek vocabulary for my fall 1999 Greek class and have already communicated with instructors who plan to use this resource. This technology, due to its low cost and relative ease of use, will help those widely scattered teachers who are now working, often cooperatively, to create interactive resources for large numbers of students.

My Next Projects

These first successes prompted me to explore further. I looked at some online guides to JavaScripts, and checked out an introductory book by Nigel Ford (1998). I am not a programmer, and have never taken a class. Still, in the past four months I have been able to create a variety of JavaScript exercises, first by manipulating JavaScripts I have found elsewhere, and now by writing my own. These pages show Javascripts for everything from the simple alert button described above to elaborate drills that allow for multiple correct answers, give feedback depending on an answer, keep running scores, give random questions, use graphics and frames to display Greek text, create matching exercises and fill-in-the blanks, and more. I have recently created a similar Metalink Page for my Humanities II class, whose drills (on Baroque, for example) use these more sophisticated JavaScripts. Such exercises can also be combined to give programmed instruction in a topic (see, for example, my experimental pages for learning Latin).

Others in Classics and Ancient Language Education Using JavaScript

While the impression remains among teachers that Javascript is difficult and exotic, many teachers have begun to use it. Elizabeth Sutherland has created Javascript drills and Margaret Phillip has designed exercises for the Oxford Latin Course, as has Dr. Barbara McManus here. The drills used by St. Mary's Schools in Annapolis, Maryland, even include a form of Hangman! The Ad Fontes Latin Academy in Virginia displays grammar drills created at George Mason University, which now have been adapted for French students. Donald Mastronarde and the Berkeley Language Center have created JavaScript guides to ancient Greek pronunciation. The Stoa, a major resource for net-based learning in Classics, displays links to information on JavaScript plus other programming tools. And last year a CALICO (Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium) workshop focused on JavaScript, with sessions on some sophisticated JavaScripts.

Advantages and Resources

Using JavaScript to create interactive, online educational materials has many obvious advantages. First, any person with Internet access and a reasonably up-to-date browser can use these aids at any time without other software. There is no problem with using Windows vs. Macintosh. I use BBedit Lite and Netscape Composer as well as FrontPage 98 for its form fields and active elements functions to add hit counters and insert fields that allow students to e-mail comments and even scores, including hidden fields, to predetermined e-mail addresses. And, unlike in some applications, once the user loads the Web page, the script works quite rapidly, unlike pages that use Java applets or require constant interaction with a remote server, like WebCT. Second, either by manipulating HTML code or using free software like Netscape Composer or BBEdit Lite, these JavaScript exercises can be created without a large investment of money. In a time when funds for public education are often insufficient but teachers are being encouraged, if not compelled, to create computerized resources, creating JavaScript exercises for Web-based instruction and review makes a lot of sense (care should be taken so that students without Internet access are not left without necessary resources). Third, it should be stressed that by simply following preexisting "recipes," one can create effective pages without really understanding JavaScript programming; one needs only to copy and paste and substitute. Many sites contain collections of common JavaScripts; I have created a color-coded guide to twenty-four simple scripts here and here.

Many books, online resources, and classes provide tutoring in JavaScript, and Emily A. Vander Veer has even written JavaScript for Dummies. With more advanced Web-authoring programs like Dreamweaver, the process becomes even simpler. In addition, freeware resources such as HotPotatoes make it even easier to create multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, crossword, matching/ordering and fill in the blank exercises without writing any JavaScript at all, just as modern page editing programs have largely eliminated the need to write HTML code to create Web pages. No one needs to "do it yourself" as I did. Finally, certain freedom comes with creating and maintaining your own resources. While sites like or offer services, these services come with strings attached and neither site offers the flexibility or the control that comes with creating one's own materials.

Final Comments

Beside the absence of hardware and software at some institutions, the greatest obstacles to the creation of more resources is the lack of time available to teachers and the false impression that working with JavaScript is difficult. While only a minority of teachers at this point will take the time to create such exercises (although this percentage will increase with improved technology), these few are providing resources accessible to vast numbers of students and teachers around the world on the Internet. Further, once completed, these exercises can be used as long as this technology remains viable (this should be true for quite some time), and their availability will reduce the need to purchase workbooks and reproduce study-guides or handouts each semester or school year. Beyond instruction and review, these exercises can even be used within a monitored lab or class for graded quizzes; source code can be effectively hidden by removing extra line breaks, creating one long, very hard-to-search line of text. Besides its relatively low cost, the usefulness of this technology is obvious, and as word gets out about the relative ease of creating such exercises and about the new JavaScript editing tools available, I believe we will see a considerable increase in the number of educators providing such resources.


Ford, D. (1998) Web guide to building intelligent Web sites with JavaScript. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

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