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Webs, wires, and wi-fi in the classroom Weaving info tech into new modes of learning
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Webs, wires, and wi-fi in the classroom
Info-tech resources can make handy new teaching tools

by Susan Rosenberg

Michael Arnush is a sociable guy, a classics professor with a lively interest in wider college affairs. In 1995, his department was housed in Harder Hall, alongside the mathematics offices, and there he made the acquaintance of a Russian student named Boris who was studying computer science. One day Boris popped his head into Arnush’s office and said, “You have to come see this.” Arnush recalls, “What he was so excited about was essentially the early World Wide Web.”

The very next year Arnush co-created a Web portal to link students enrolled in “Democracy in Ancient Athens,” a course he offered together with a colleague at Miami University of Ohio. The online portal included a discussion forum and drew on the Perseus catalog of classics materials housed at Tufts University.

That organic, almost infectious way of spreading is a defining character of information technology, especially on the Internet. Its natural history at Skidmore, as at many colleges, began with incremental gains—a faculty computer here, then there; then some cabling for network links; then clusters of machines in student resource rooms—but was soon expanding exponentially, with e-mail and Google, laptops and iPods, blogs and Facebook. And now Skidmore is grappling with its implications (not just chasing after it to keep up with its changes, but trying to get ahead of it and creatively exploit its impacts) on pedagogy, budgeting, campus life … indeed every aspect of the college’s operations and mission.

Skidmore knew early on that it had a tiger by the tail. By 1994 it had established the Information Resources Council, a faculty and administrative advisory body, “to ensure that the college reaps fully the benefits of modern integrated information resources.” The IRC’s purview touches on the mercantile—for example, Skidmore’s IT office buys and installs new models for all faculty, staff, and public computers every four years—and the logistical—the Digital Assets Management Task Force aims to help all departments systematize the creation and filing of digitized images, documents, databases, and other resources. But mostly the IRC explores philosophical issues like the values and risks of IT for the complex, delicate business of teaching and learning.

Throughout the late 1990s a number of Skidmore faculty members worked to adapt and integrate IT into their courses (particularly in foreign languages, with help from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant). The faculty’s own Pedagogy Workshops have regularly included offerings like “Library 101,” on research methods in the wired world, and “New Literacy and the Classroom,” about online video and other media. And recently Skidmore constituted an Information Literacy Task Force to help articulate the hows, wheres, and whens of improving student’s fluency with IT.

Of course Skidmore’s 2005 strategic plan has plenty to say about the role of IT in “engaged liberal learning.” The plan argues that texts “and the linear reasoning that they support” are still valuable, but it also acknowledges that IT and the Web offer new methods of developing and expressing knowledge, as multidimensional hyperlinks cut across linear, hierarchical formats, and dynamic access fosters real-time interactivity. Students need to become “sophisticated consumers” of IT and “accomplished creators of such resources.”

Outright e-learning—that is, courses conducted online—is not being widely pursued in the regular residential curriculum at Skidmore. “When we last discussed this,” notes Susan Kress, VP for academic affairs and chair of IRC, “faculty members wondered whether this kind of instruction is fundamentally at odds with our settled notions of learning in a liberal arts setting. Another broad conversation is overdue.” But when it comes to incorporating some IT in teaching, Kress reports, “there are some hubs of real excitement and innovation around the college, and also a gradual increase in activity across all disciplines.” To speed and support IT use, Kress is pondering eventual additions in IT staff and the assignment of some of them “to particular disciplines or technological modes, just as members of the library staff are specialists in particular disciplines.” Not surprisingly she adds, “I worry about what all this costs.”

Back in 1996 Michael Arnush helped assemble his Perseus-linked portal because nothing like it was available. Today Skidmore professors can choose from lots of online teachings aids; last year more than 100 of them used Blackboard, a popular course-management and interaction tool on the Web. In fact, students often arrive as freshmen with experience, and expectations, of using such re­sources, says Kelly Dempsey-Little, the training and documentation coordinator in the IT office. (She says one professor became a Blackboard convert after being ribbed by her students for copying too much paper instead of posting handouts electronically.)

Homemade or store-bought, no IT slips under the radar of professorial skepticism. Arnush and others are especially wary of Google searching. He says, “I once Googled ‘How democratic was ancient Athens,’ and the top results were pretty weak, including a Wikipedia article written by a nonexpert in the field. The first genuine piece of scholarship I came to was sixth on the list. Students need to learn to be very discriminating with their Web searches.” While English professor Sarah Goodwin loves “the free and unconstrained sense of time” in online forums, she warns, “you need to set deadlines. Students can post their pre-class comments whenever they’re studying, which could be 2 or 3 a.m., but sometimes they post them just minutes before class, and that’s too late.” Teaching acting in the theater department, Marie Glotzbach says online forums can help students compose thoughtful critiques of each others’ performances, but “I don’t think that would work if we didn’t first build the bonding and trust that comes from working together in person.”

Glotzbach’s most recent use of digital media was all about individual, not group, enlightenment. First her acting students found and analyzed an “au­then­tic moment” between two characters in a movie, and then they performed other two-person scenes in front of a video camera. Says Glotzbach, “With iMovie it was easy for them to watch the film scene and their own scene side by side, not to compare themselves with professional actors, but to see in both cases what the actors gave each other—a facial expression, body language—and how genuinely they related to each other. It helped them penetrate the unconscious mannerisms and inhibitions that can impede honesty in acting.” Viewable on a small PC, the exercise was private, not for peer or professor evaluation. Once the students had studied their performances on their own, she says, “when I talked to them about what I saw in their acting, we could have more useful conversations.” In fact the technique “led to some breakthroughs for some students.”

Sometimes fake is better than real. Biologist Roy Meyers teaches physiology with the help of a computer simulation that allows experimentation without risking anyone’s health or wealth. WebHuman—his user-friendly, Web-interfaced version of a FORTRAN-coded model from the 1980s—lets students give a virtual drug to a virtual human and then see color-coded line graphs tracing its effect on blood pressure, core temperature, pulse rate, and so on. By altering various conditions, students can track “many more responses than you could measure in a live ‘wet’ lab unless you had a staggeringly complex setup,” says Meyers. It’s so valuable that other colleges and medical schools use it even more than Skidmore does; a total of some 30,000 WebHuman simulations are run in a typical year. (See the “Scopedish” blog for more on WebHuman.)

While technology is often at the very core of teaching and research in the sciences, its benefits in other fields are sometimes more a matter of convenience. Glotzbach likes the way the Blackboard system organizes her course syllabus, readings, student list, grades, e-mails all in one place online, so that “I can be out of town on a fundraising trip and still access everything without having to lug papers in a briefcase.” In Sarah Goodwin’s course on law and literature in the 1800s, and in her Romanticism class, she was grateful that Blackboard made it easy to tweak the syllabus to respond to students’ needs. “I came across a New Yorker article that I wanted to add,” she says, “and I could post it for everyone to access anytime.” Like several others, she also values the “transparency and full disclosure” enforced by online archiving: “Students can’t just claim they slid a paper under my door before deadline; now submissions are automatically time-stamped. They can’t lose their first draft of a paper with my comments on it, and since they know that I still have those comments too, they do address them in their second draft!”

Most of all Goodwin appreciates the potential of online discussion forums to open the doors to better in-class interactions. Requiring her students to post a response to each reading assignment before each class meeting, “I could always tell who was reading thoughtfully and primed for discussion.” In her 200-level law-and-lit course, she recalls, “a few freshmen were concerned about their writing skills, so I offered to preview their posts and make a few suggestions. They felt better about participating, and after awhile they didn’t need my previews anymore.”

In Romantic lit, she challenged her students to discuss the form of various poems, an unfamiliar level of analysis for some of them. “Rather than put them on the spot in class, I found the forum made them feel safer about making preliminary guesses and getting feedback informally.” That informality was surprisingly productive. “For me and them both, the forums felt a bit breezy—I wasn’t grading the posts or correcting them rigorously—and that fueled their confidence.” One wag in law and lit wrote a post in the voice of the philosopher John Locke inviting an­other author out for a drink. “That playful approach was wonderful,” Goodwin says, add­ing, “I be­gan saying to my­self, ‘I can’t wait to see what’s been posted.’”

Law-and-lit student Salman Chaudhry ’11 liked “getting the basic ideas of the readings out of the way” in the forum, “leaving more time for discussion in class.” Jane Kelly ’10 admits she didn’t get much benefit from reading her classmates’ posts, but she says Goodwin “used the comments effectively to help guide our discussions.”

In contrast, classicist Arnush has quit using student forums in his teaching. Instead, he says, “I do a lot of e-mailing.” For term papers, each student begins with a short thesis statement and then a first draft, and Arnush discusses both phases in individual e-mails. “The exchanges sometimes go into more depth than we could cover in a half-hour meeting in my office,” he notes. Not infrequently he e-mails a student or two right after class, to follow up on an idea raised in discussion or plant a seed for the next class. (“I do limit the time I spend. I might read an e-mail at 11 p.m., but I won’t answer at that hour, or students would think I’m available around the clock. But I try to answer by, say, 8 a.m.”)

From e-mails to physiology models—not to mention unfettered access to texts, videos, slides, and other resources—“you can’t not use technology,” asserts Meyers. Arnush agrees: “It’s pervaded the world our students inhabit. So I’m all for leveraging it to help catch their attention and interest.” After that, though, “I’m still not persuaded that there’s any better way to teach and learn than in person, inside four walls, with a piece of chalk.” For one thing, he explains, traditional class formats can help students break their multitasking habits, if only for fifty minutes. Arnush doesn’t bar his students from note-taking on laptop computers in class, but he understands why some colleagues might want to: “Once, I mentioned a certain image in class, and a few minutes later a student said, ‘Oh, I found the picture you were talking about—here it is online!’ And I had to say, ‘OK, thanks, but while you were searching the Web for that image, you couldn’t have been listening 100 percent to what was being discussed.’ We need to help students to stay focused.”

Not that multimedia can’t catalyze learning in exciting ways. Last fall, in the American studies course “Global Perspectives of the United States,” Prof. Dan Nathan and students met in Skidmore’s computer center for a three-way videoconference with an American studies class (including brand-new grad Sam McHale ’07) in Košice, Slovakia, and with a US Embassy section chief in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital. And Arnush recently linked his Homer class with a Homer class at Hamilton College (a partner in a four-college Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant), using PictureTel. “It felt stilted,” he says, “talking to a video screen. But if the technology became smoother, I could imagine truly team-taught courses across colleges, where the faculty don’t just take turns giving the lectures but really collaborate in leading discussions that include students at all campuses seamlessly.” (Podcasts, however, don’t im­press him. “Listening to a recorded lecture is unidirectional, not interactive. For me, learning is about real-time one-on-one exchange.”)

One innovation that’s attracting Arnush and others is electronic whiteboards—large wall screens on which users can display items from the Internet next to other windows with text or images, drag items from window to window, and even add handwritten notes wherever needed.

Interactive, eclectic, user-controlled, collaborative—whiteboards give only a hint of the appeal and power of the next wave of IT resources. This semester Skidmore plans to link into Internet2, a high-speed network exclusively for educational and research uses. Justin Sipher, Skidmore’s chief technology officer, explains that Internet2 will be accessible to faculty in all disciplines, but “the driving force is to provide our music program with real-time high-quality audio and video conferencing.” Sipher adds, “Whether it’s coaching in a master class or rehearsing for a joint performance at a distance, the arts-collaboration possibilities are endless with Internet2.” Of course, it’s not just the networks that are endless. Putting those links and resources to best use is an infinitely ramified, never-ending story for administrators and faculty in every corner of campus.