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Virtues and Vices of Computer-Mediated Teaching and Learning

J. B. Owens, Idaho State University

This page has been prepared to stimulate discussion about computer-mediated distance learning as part of a Technology Forum, organized by Haines Brown, to be held as part of the annual meeting of the World History Association, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 20 June 1998. Because of its purpose, I have not appended the usual scholarly apparatus. Currently, I am coordinator of the COM-IDEAL computer- mediated distance learning grant project funded by the Idaho State Board of Education.

Making Connections: New Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Haines Brown requested a brief paper which would raise for discussion significant points about computer-mediated distance learning. I have two limitations of which I am conscious as I attempt to respond.

First, I am not one of these wandering Gurus who sell miracle cures to state governors and others. I am nothing more than a working instructor seeking ways to enhance my teaching and my students' learning. There are many aspects of computer-mediated instruction with which I do not deal. For example, I am not interested in, because I have little faith in, the sort of web course in which the student is mostly involved in a self-paced interaction with materials set up somewhere on a server.

Also, I am not an expert on computer-mediated instructional technology. Fortunately, Idaho State University's Wesley Taylor provides a high level of support and expertise in this area through the Instructional Technology Resource Center. Any historian undertaking this form of teaching will want this sort of support.

I did not start my research on computer-mediated teaching and learning with any of my current goals for this type of instruction. My initial research focused on how professional organizations and their activities could be enhanced and transformed into a more dynamic basis of the discipline. Also, my department had proposed an innovative M.A. program in Comparative and World History which included a residency requirement. A mandatory academic year of campus residency would, however, exclude at least 80% of those in a large, rural, and mountainous state who might want to pursue such a degree as they would likely be working secondary school teachers in remote, widely-scattered sites. Even though I thought it would be a poor substitute for an exciting, campus-based program, I was interested in exploring how computer-mediated communications techniques could be used to deliver the courses and other aspects of such an M.A. program to those unable to relocate to ISU's Pocatello campus.

Under the guidance of James J. O'Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania, I quickly saw that, rather than serving as a second-best substitute for the real thing, computer-mediated instruction offered some significant advantages over classroom-based forms of instruction. The results of that work are summarized in my 1995 paper History On-line: Teaching on the Internet. How I now organize a somewhat different type of graduate-level course can be seen in the materials for my currently in-progress course Topics in World History, 1350- 1800.

I quickly learned that it is a waste of the technological resources now available for computer-mediated communication merely to recycle old courses. New ways of teaching and learning must be explored and developed, and the ones that most interest me fall into the areas of ACCESS, INTERACTION, and COLLABORATION.

Defining Goals; Defining Limits

Access to People; Access to Information

An increasing number of courses using computer-mediated communications techniques are making use of materials placed on "pages" on the World-Wide Web. If the entire course consists of such materials, we call the result a "Web course"; if such materials are the predominant focus, we call it a "Web-centered course"; and if such materials are use but the focus is on other communications media, we call it a "Web-enhanced course."

For me, the main benefit of web resources is the way they can be used to promote ACTIVE, NONLINEAR, EXTENDED THOUGHT with which our students have little or no experience. Increasingly, students can use the web to pursue a topic to the limits of their interest and time. The easy-to-learn use of hypertext, encoding with HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), permits a writer to turn any text into a multi-portaled invitation to the reader's participatory exploration. A properly-designed curriculum will provide a student with the an experience of the sort of thought characteristic of serious intellectual work, and in the sense of "one must do science to learn science," will greatly enhance student learning. Many web sites are currently providing opportunities for this sort of thought. As examples, examine the medieval studies site Labyrinth and the Library of Congress' now famous American Memory site. Although I have not yet found the time, I want eventually to integrate resource links more closely with the discovery questions on my assignment pages rather than simply listing them at the end as I do, for example, on my page Ecclesiastical Culture.

The crucial element must be a stress on INFORMATION SEARCH DESIGN. With such heightened means of obtaining information, we must concentrate more on teaching students to ask questions with sufficient precision to reveal what information they need to obtain answers on which to found judgments. Perhaps even more than in the case of print materials, it is an instructional imperative that students be taught how to evaluate the quality of the information they obtain. I try to develop student projects that will give me opportunities to provide such guidance. As examples of how I organize such projects, I offer those from my upper-division undergraduate and graduate-level courses Renaissance Creativity and The Spanish Empire.

There is, perhaps, a real need for a world history web site which would assist active, nonlinear, extended thought and provide some of the rudiments of good information search design.

Amplified Interaction

I am not opposed to lectures as a teaching method, but a major restriction of computer-mediated instruction is that it does not lend itself to lecturing. Rather it provides a means to enhance substantially interaction between teacher and student and among the students.

One type is ASYNCHRONOUS INTERACTION through the use of e-mail. Idaho State University's student body has a high percentage of commuters and a significant percentage of those who attend part-time. It used to upset me that my office hours were never convenient for all students, and that many of those with after-class questions had to rush to jobs or child care responsibilities. Now more timely interactions are possible, interaction becomes more convenient for students with complex schedules, student questions need not be lost, and through the use of networked discussion lists, there is greater equity since all students benefit from instructor responses to out-of-class queries from students. Contrary to expectations, e-mail communications are usually experienced as highly personal despite their computer-mediated nature. The great problem is that there is as yet no clear understanding of the impact of asynchronous interaction on the instructor's time nor how best to limit and organize the potentially increased student demands on their instructors.

Even more exciting for me is computer-mediated REAL-TIME ("LIVE") INTERACTION. On- line, real-time interactions are of much higher quality than those in the traditional classroom. Collaboration is greater, and participation in more equitable. Because of its design flexibility and its easy access and use, the MOO is a particularly valuable environment for such interactions. The MOO is a good example of an instructional opportunity which is relatively underutilized because so much computer-mediated instruction is being driven by those fascinated with ever-more-sophisticated hardware and software rather than by the genuine educational needs of teachers and students. I have never been able to explain the MOO environment to anyone who has not seen it and suggest you read MOO at ISU, a page prepared by Jonathan Byrd, until recently part of the staff of ISU's computer center, and New Tools for Teaching by James J. O'Donnell, which provides a telnet connection to Penn-MOO as an example of the nature of this environment.

If it is true that through the study of world history one learns through contact with other perspectives, the ability of computer-mediated communications to facilitate on a global scale interactions with those holding a wide variety of perspectives about human history could make computer-mediated distance teaching and learning an unrivaled intellectual experience for teachers and students.

Collaborative Learning and Teaching

Computer-mediated education provides much greater opportunities for collaboration, and it is this aspect which is perhaps the most poorly developed among those using Internet resources. Instructors can work to create LEARNING COMMUNITIES. On every college and university campus, there is a tremendous need for common, collaborative ACADEMIC experiences among students to create groups. Moreover, students need to have experiences and be directed toward resources as a basis for life-long learning. Computer-mediated communications permit individuals and groups to cooperate on an international basis to provide the necessary opportunities. My own current best effort to stimulate collaborative learning can be seen in the Institute for Constitutional Research of my course "Constituting Modern Spain, 1808-1982." The purpose of the WHA's World History Network is to provide a vehicle for the collaborative generation of such educational resources.

If it can be organized, the broadened collaboration possible through computer-mediated distance learning could greatly enhance the educational experiences of all involved. Moreover, the MOO environment easily provides a venue for real-time collaboration among students and teachers spread throughout the globe for courses, grant writing, meetings to discuss papers, and more informal social interaction.

One of Heidi Roupp's major accomplishments as president of the World History Association has been her promotion of computer-mediated communications as a means to increase collaboration among world historians for the benefit of the entire discipline.

Issues to Keep in Mind

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All contents copyright © 1998.
J. B. Owens
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Revised: 23 May 1998