The Chronicle of Higher Education: Articles


February 13, 1998

Tools for Teaching: Personal Encounters in Cyberspace


Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.

--James A. Garfield

I'd like to think that I believe in this vision, and, as a classics professor, I was pleased a few years ago to discover that it was uttered by the only classics professor ever to become President of the United States. In practice, though, I find myself happy to work on a campus -- the University of Pennsylvania -- that is richly supplied with buildings, equipment, and libraries, along with gifted colleagues and students.

The appeal of a vision such as Garfield's abides, though, and, for many faculty members, comes to mind when we think about the specialized apparatus of computers and networks beginning to intrude on teaching. Will these instruments come between us and our students? Do we risk becoming slaves of the apparatus and losing the valuable personal encounter between student and teacher? Many professors fear just that, not unreasonably. I am skeptical of such fears, and hopeful about the instruments.

My skepticism is born of personal experience. I wanted a "word processor" from the moment I first heard one described, in 1980. I was eager to communicate with friends and colleagues, but it took me a few years longer to find my way into the domain of e-mail. I happened to blunder into cyberspace at the happy moment of the late 1980s, when the electronic discussion group called "Humanist" (run by Willard McCarty, now a senior lecturer in humanities computing at King's College, London) was the liveliest and most interesting salon for intellectual conversation going. At the time, I felt in my bones that the new tools would make it easier to do better the things that I had gone into academe to pursue: scholarly research, classroom teaching, and the life of the mind that surrounds and gives community to both.

The possibility of losing the human touch did not bother me overmuch, and some early experiments showed that the electronic world offered new opportunities to broaden my academic contacts. In 1990, I began publishing, along with Richard Hamilton, a professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr College, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, apparently the second-oldest electronic journal in the humanities (after Postmodern Culture). What began as a few friends reviewing books for a small audience of fellow professors grew rapidly into an international readership. People who used to simply read the journal now contribute to it as well, and the result is a livelier intellectual exchange. At academic meetings, I meet more and more people who turn out to be old friends from cyberspace.

In 1994, I decided to add an electronic dimension to a traditional classroom seminar on the works of Augustine. At the end of each Monday session, one student was charged with summarizing the conversation and posting it on a network list subscribed to by more than 500 people auditing the course, from Hong Kong to Istanbul. Over the next several days, many of them would add their own comments. Their contributions refreshed the topic and carried the discussion forward. In fact, I noticed that the classroom portion of that course -- what I irritated some of the participants by calling the "liveware" portion -- was more engaged, more active, more venturesome, and more collegial than earlier versions of the same course.

Since that time, I have continued exploring ways to use networked computers in teaching, as have increasing numbers of other faculty members at Penn.

What's more, after becoming the faculty master of a residence with 500 students, I found that the electronic resources of the Net are just as powerful in animating dormitory life. In Penn's residence halls, house-wide e-mail lists make the business of house councils and discipline committees more efficient. World-Wide Web pages give the houses a sense of identity, spread news of events, and help recruit new members.

In the past two years, we have built up our residents' on-line access to academic advising in specific courses and disciplines, such as math and writing. Further, many of our houses now have "library advisers," undergraduates who know a bit more than average about how to use library resources -- in particular, the welter of on-line data bases. The student advisers work with professional librarians to link other residents to the help they need; they also organize on-line and face-to-face programs to introduce students to research tools in a more disciplined way. These academic services are just as available at 2 a.m. as at 2 p.m. -- and are often far more urgently needed at 2 a.m.

These days, I often find myself in our dining hall with one or another student, deep in animated conversation of just the kind Garfield imagined. But the appointment to meet was certainly made by e-mail, and the conversation continues a discussion begun earlier -- sometimes much earlier -- that oscillates effortlessly between electronic and face to face.

A student is away for a term studying in Europe? The conversation continues by e-mail. We forget to finish a story over dinner? We finish it two hours later by e-mail. I still scribble the titles of books on napkins to hand to students during meals, but if we meet in my office, I find myself sending an e-mail message with such references (correctly spelled) to the student while we talk.

Universities are triumphant testimony that technologies rarely simply supplant one another. What distinguishes a great institution is the wisdom with which its faculty members choose among the tools available to them, to find the ones best suited to the tasks at hand. Elite universities and colleges may be less susceptible than other postsecondary institutions to market pressures, and perhaps will be affected more slowly and less directly than other institutions by the way in which information technology is changing the marketplace and the landscape of higher education. That may make those of us at such campuses complacent. But we will be affected soon enough, and we have every reason to be cautious in selecting technologies that improve the academic process.

So when we sit in our log huts, or our dining halls, or our classrooms, we have a dynamic, interactive learning environment of immense power. We have for centuries worked to make that environment better by surrounding it with the "buildings, apparatus, and libraries" of which Garfield spoke. What we now can anticipate is not the eradication of face-to-face education but its strengthening. No doubt, there will continue to be shifts in the balance between what we do when we are apart and what we do face to face -- just as there have been similar shifts every decade or two for hundreds of years.

James J. O'Donnell is a professor of classical studies and vice-provost of information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania. His book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace will be published by Harvard University Press in June.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 02/13/98
Section: Opinion
Page: B7