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History On-line: Teaching on the Internet

J. B. Owens
Idaho State University

Presented as part of the Idaho State University Department of History Colloquium "Cyberhistory: the Role of Communication in the Craft of History." Not to be cited or reproduced in any form without the permission of the author (

Nothing that I will propose in this paper is either difficult or futuristic. Everything necessary for Internet teaching is available NOW to help us deal with a number of frustrating teaching problems. Since it is rapidly becoming widely available, my explanations assume a familiarity with electronic mail (e-mail).

I began the research on which this paper is based because I was unsure about the wisdom of a decision made by the History Department, which I supported, when we created our proposal for an M.A. program in comparative and world history. In order to permit the absolutely necessary interaction among graduate students and faculty members, we had to include a residency requirement that would exclude an unknown, but probably high, percentage of those who will want and need such a degree program. Among the excluded group will be a large number of working secondary school teachers in communities within ISU's service region who will rightly feel that the university fails to meet their needs. The high-quality interaction we demand for our program is a question of communication, and there is now available a powerful communications tool which may permit us to revisit the residency part of our program design.

In doing the research on the use of Internet discussion groups to build the discipline of History, about which I spoke last semester, it became apparent to me that there was another alternative of which I thought history faculty members, students, university administrators, and interested potential M.A. students should be aware. Using the vast international network of linked computers known as the Internet, we can offer instruction and interaction to graduate students at sites within our service region as distant as Salmon, and in fact, students could be anywhere in the world where they had Internet connections. Neither a campus computer center nor a faculty member has to be particularly sophisticated technologically to make possible such a course. The necessary technical components are electronic mail, an electronic discussion list, a World-Wide Web site, and the interactive "conferencing" software to produce a MOO site or something similar, and I will explain all of these in this paper. What I will present is a teaching model I developed while taking last fall a graduate course at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia along with students in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, and Japan!

Electronic mail, or e-mail, plays a fundamental role in the on-line course. It permits efficient intercommunication between teacher and student and among students. In addition to the usual exchanges of questions and information between teacher and student, e-mail is also the means by which students submit and instructors return essays and other assignments.

The course's electronic discussion group also makes use of e-mail through a LISTSERV [spelled correctly] discussion list. A list-management program installed on an institution's computer (or one somewhere else) will allow e- mail contributions to the list's e-mail address to be distributed to all subscribers as e-mail messages received in their personal e-mailboxes, just as other e-mail messages are received. Subscriptions to the list and changes in subscriber status (for example, postponing mail delivery) are handled automatically, removing that burden from the instructor, who will now be known as a "list-owner" in Internet jargon.

Listserv discussion lists are quite common on the Internet, and one established for a particular course in many ways will be much like these others. With such a tool, student questions are not lost through lack of time, and clarification of course material in response to one student's out- of-class question can be communicated to all. In my model, subscription to the list would be open to anyone, whether an enrolled student or not, who was interested in following, and perhaps participating in, the course discussion. This participation is particularly useful if there are other list members besides the instructor (for example, other dept. members) with expertise in the field. If students are exposed to a plurality of viewpoints, they more quickly grasp why a particular document or argument is so important.

If the discussion list is to be open to others besides enrolled students, however, the instructor will have to be especially vigilante to make the students' interests and needs paramount in determining the direction of discussion. All list members have to feel that when they express doubts or ask for help, the response will be supportive rather than hostile. Students need to be coached and encouraged if they are going to make good use of the discussion list as an environment in which to place a query, to offer a tentative hypothesis, to ask about bibliography or electronic resources. Once students see that their interventions are welcomed and their needs met, they will carry to the list some of the enthusiasm generated in the classroom discussion limited to them, which I discuss later in the paper. In fact, a student should be assigned weekly to report to the list the highlights of the classroom session for the benefit of the non-student list members.

In my model course, while e-mail and its related listserv discussion list will permit a great deal of quite direct interaction, course "handouts" and other resources will be available to all at a permanent Internet World-Wide Web site. To take advantage of the World-Wide Web, you must have a "web browser" installed on your computer. These browsers permit you to receive and see information either as text-only (in the case of Lynx) or text and graphics (in the case of Mosaic or Netscape). A www electronic address (mine is connects the user to a page of information called a "home page." The home page text describes various resources that course participants may wish to consult depending on their needs. At the various points in the description where resources are named, the words are highlighted, and when the computer's cursor is in the highlighted area, the user can actually go directly to the resource by clicking the "mouse" (a hand- held gadget for activating the cursor) or striking the ENTER key.

For example, if the highlighted words are selected at the point where the course syllabus is mentioned, that syllabus will appear on the screen. The syllabus page itself may contain highlighted words, and if these are selected the user will perhaps find on the screen a description of the term paper assignment, or a list of reading assignments, or an explanation of how to use e-mail to consult with the instructor. As the academic term continues, the instructor may add outlines of lectures, the examinations, and study questions. The www site should probably also serve as an archive for messages posted to the discussion list so that these are retained for later consultation.

The resource, however, could be a document, a scholarly article, a novel, a photograph, a video clip, or the performance of a song (the latter two possibilities requiring additional software), and these could be at another university or in another country. And each of those resources may have its own link to something else. You could never get lost since you can both go backwards and return to the original home page. Thus, an individual student would have the ability to follow the thread of an interesting subject as long as there were resources, the availability of which is increasing rapidly, and motivation. Imagine what it will be like when, for example, I can provide lecture outlines that will permit students instantly to check supporting documents, read conflicting scholarly opinions, look at graphs and maps, and view pictures of the people, places, and events discussed. Moreover, when all those teaching similar material have our own www sites, we can establish links to each other's materials, thereby cooperating to lighten our individual loads.

This magic is created by putting into the text simple, easy to learn, codes that are part of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and the electronic addresses of the resources that can be selected. You do not see the edited page on your screen but rather a readable version with the codes and addresses hidden.

Finally, the effective Internet course requires that there be regular "classes," sessions of direct, interactive conferencing. For such classes, students and instructor will all have to connect at the same time to a conference "site" on the university's computer. Increasingly, the most popular type of computer software that permits a group of people to connect and interact in real time is the one that creates a MOO (multi-user, object oriented). The MOO software allows the site manager to create "objects" described in words on the screen. These objects may be landscapes, buildings, rooms, architectural features, furniture, and various machines and robots. MOO participants orient themselves to these objects through simple typed commands like "go" or "look." Through this orientation process one gets a sense of being in a space.

For example, in the MOO of the University of Pennsylvania, where I took a course on the late Latin author Boethius from James J. O'Donnell, when I connected electronically with the MOO, I first had to go through a brief "login" routine. Once cleared for entry, I had on my screen a simple map which, it was claimed, represented the Penn campus, with me standing in a central patio area. The bottom of the screen was "south," and when I typed that direction, I entered the classroom building on the first floor. My screen had a list of classrooms for the courses taught in the MOO. One of these was the Boethius room, and when I typed its number, a list of the objects in the room's interior appeared on my screen. There was a long table, a square table, a round table, a podium, and a pillar. Why such silliness?

Each of these objects had a purpose. The MOO could be used for many conferences at the same time without having the participants in one disturb the participants in another. For example, if a class in the Boethius room needed to divide up to work, each subgroup could sit at a different table. In that case, messages could be exchanged only by those at the same table, and they would not get messages either from those at other tables or from anyone left standing. To be received by all, any general announcement had to be made from the podium.

Moreover, areas for other types of activity were available. Upstairs in the classroom building was a social lounge marked by a soft-drink machine. In the faculty office building "east" of the patio, O'Donnell had an office where he could have an interactive conference with an individual student.

Everything I "said" in class had to be typed, and I had to read on the screen everything "said" by O'Donnell and the other students. But didn't this process make the class sessions slow, tedious, and impersonal? Just the opposite: it was one of the liveliest and most personally-engaging classes with which I have been associated. First, all of us were using software that permitted us to make a full-text log of the class session, which could be edited later. Without having to worry about taking notes, we were free to concentrate on the exchange of ideas and more readily generated our own questions and comments. Second, without going into why, this format seems to encourage the reticent and shy to participate more actively and freely than we can ever get them to do in face-to-face classes. Third, even when several students would contribute comments at virtually the same time, it was easier to keep track of written statements appearing in order and relatively slowly in front of you on the screen than it often is when interventions are being voiced almost simultaneously and more rapidly from several directions. And fourth, we could write and edit our comments and questions in a little section at the bottom of the screen before we had to send them to the others, which appeared to increase confidence as students felt they had more control over their interventions than if they had to get it right the first time they blurted out their ideas. Moreover, when he had to explain something, O'Donnell learned to break his exposition after a few paragraphs to make sure that the text did not run off the screen, but these breaks permitted student questions, comments, and objections that sparked discussion. Every night after this 150 minute class, I was so excited that I continued to think about the discussion as I walked home, and the other students reported similar experiences.

In other words, it worked. O'Donnell's class provided everything one could reasonably expect from a graduate course. The MOO classes were valuable and stimulating. E-mail provided a much more personalized vehicle for individual interaction with the instructor than most of the faculty members here probably had even with their dissertation advisers, and although it required a real time appointment, the contact was supplemented by individual "office" sessions in the MOO. And both of these resources were available for interaction among the students. While the Boethius discussion list was not as successful as O'Donnell had hoped, based on the tremendous response to the one for his course on Augustine last spring, and while I think that the instructor needs to do much more than O'Donnell did to prepare even graduate students for participation in list activities, still the debate was usually exciting and allowed students to follow the often daily exchange of ideas about Boethius and the cultural history of Late Antiquity among the world's great experts located on six of the seven continents. And World-Wide Web sites are rapidly making vast resources available to support many disciplines and types of course, in this particular case by providing on line the full Latin text of many important works, often with a hypertext-linked English translation.

Problems? Sure. MOO participation is easier if you have good touch-typing skills. But hey, it is always hard to make up for a wasted youth, and there are efficient ways to learn to type at any point in one's life.

While Internet resources are growing rapidly, students at rural remote sites will have poor access to library resources since they will be much more heavily dependent on Interlibrary Loan. Thus, for now, the least frustrating Internet course for the geographically-isolated student will be one based on books, articles, and documents that can be purchased in advance or found on the Internet. But judging from the reactions of my fellow students, who were delighted to be able to take a course about an interest they shared with no one they knew where they lived, for the remote student the benefits of having an exciting course available will more than compensate for frustrating delays in obtaining library material.

Want to learn more? Look through the teaching demo James O'Donnell has installed on his WWW site ( If your system will support it, the demo even provides access to the Penn MOO. But first, let me try to field your questions, either about this model, or about how some of its elements could be adapted to teaching courses with regular classroom sessions, or about Internet resources for student research and learning. Then if anyone wants, we can go down to the Ifft Center and see what a World-Wide Web site and a MOO are.

You may contact me at or if you wish, you may mail me now. Please include your name and e-mail address in the body of your message.

All contents copyright © 1995.
J. B. Owens
All rights reserved.

Revised: 17 April 1995.