New Tools for Teaching

by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University

NEW TOOLS: The future is now (2001 version)

Kind readers who come to this site should be aware that it is a curio. It retains surprising value in some basic ways, but it is also a dinosaur in Internet time. It went on-line in November 1994, about a month after the first version of Netscape was released, and embodied both a vision and a pragmatics of using technology with teaching that seemed revolutionary and invigorating at the time.

Today, one boom and one dot.bust later, much that is said here is now taken for granted. What is worth noticing is how little the paradigm of the net has changed in this time. What 1994 gave us was a model that assumed a desktop or laptop machine, a web browser, an e-mail program, basic productivity software (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.), and a network connection. That is the model we still live with. Web pages jump and dance in ways we didn't dream of then (and we found out that the "blink" command was inserted in html as a joke), and "suites" of "courseware" aggregate a variety of the functions described here, but when people tell you that technology changes rapidly, it's useful to remember just how little it has changed in the last seven years. (The most dated piece of material here is not uninteresting: the section on MOO technology. There are a lot of virtual on-line chat rooms and community spaces and such since then, but MOO remains interesting for the role it gave to the imagination, creating and shaping virtual spaces and virtual roles for the people who moved through them, slipping on and off the seven genders of the space with self-conscious aplomb.)

What will begin to change the paradigm? My suspicion (October 2001) is that wireless handheld devices (like the little Blackberry palm-filler that I read e-mail on surreptitiously during business meetings) will change people's habits noticeably -- but not as much as the original net invasion did. What lies beyond? What indeed.

At Penn, more faculty than ever use many of these tools. In 1999, we put together a campus-wide project, also called "New Tools for Teaching," which brought together faculty and staff from all twelve of Penn's schools to design a common environment for the most current tools of technologically assisted teaching and learning. That project maintains a website which all readers of these pages should explore. For now, we use "Blackboard", and guests may see part of what we do at -- login and password both as "guest" will let you see the non-protected parts of the site.


In 1996, when this site was two years old, I added an update which already has a dated feel itself.

This page leads to others that introduce, describe, and exemplify new Internet-based resources for teaching that are already available and in the main astonishingly easy to use. If you know anything at all about using a WWW program (like the one you must be using to read this page!), then you can work through this successfully. See a highlighted link, click on the link! Find the "back" button (on top of this screen probably) to back out of things when you've seen enough, but you'll find plenty of links to make it easy to get around. (If you see something you want to save, and your software supports a "hotlist" feature, mark it and come back to it later. And what if you get lost in cyberspace exploring these pages?)

The further you go in this particular exploration, the more you will find reference to circumstances that apply to faculty and students in the University of Pennsylvania, where this page originates. But at least 95% of what is described here is in fact possible today on any campus that has access to the Internet: the more students who have Internet access, the easier these things get. Consult your local gurus for the necessary adaptation. Suppose the local gurus say they can't help? You may have an unexpected ally on campus.

Who is this talking, please?

This page and the linked pages are organized by Jim O'Donnell, classicist at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm not a techie by any means: I'm a working scholar and teacher who has found in these new tools the most exciting possibilities to enhance teaching that have come along in my twenty years in front of the classroom. That's the perspective here -- how to take our academic "day job" and do it better, improve morale among faculty and students, and begin the transformation of our institutions into the forms they will need to take in the information age. I've written a fair amount on these and related themes, and there's a brief sermonette encouraging people to use these pages, but when asked I usually press people to have a look at a remarkable new book by UCLA English Professor Dick Lanham, The Electronic Word (University of Chicago Press, 1993) -- there's a sample chapter available to read, and I have myself written an extensive review. It's an excellent theoretical study of what happens to the written word when electrons become the medium. When I'm asked for practical examples of what can be done, I point to the work of Penn's English Department over the last year or so, where a true revolution in pedagogy, fueled by technology but not driven by it or limited to it, is well under way. Charlie McMahon in Penn's Engineering school has also written of his experiences with this kind of teaching.

How far can it all go? Perhaps it's getting pretty far along already. In October 1995, the first reports arrived about the Open University of Catalonia and its exclusively virtual campus; it now has its own web page, naturally enough. But in another way it's an old dream, as a fan letter that came to me through these pages indicates.

So what can we offer you? Do you have to be a zealot or something? And who are you?

Better Communication with Students

Even Better Communication

Information from/on the Net

The Library

News groups: Sometimes a Swamp is a Wetland

Gopher: tools to navigate texts

The World-Wide Web: texts, images, hypertexts

MOO: the virtual classroom

Over the horizon

What it's like in practice

What does it all cost?

Where will I find the time?

What if I need more help with the basics?

A WWW page is a dynamic medium, constantly open to change. If you have corrections, suggestions, questions, or contrary views you would like to see represented, please send them to