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E-mail, web sites: No more pencils, no more books?
STANFORD -- Joseph Corn, a senior lecturer in history who says he was yanked "kicking and screaming into the computer age," now has incorporated the World Wide Web into his teaching.
Corn manages an on-line newsgroup where students in his "Introduction to Material Culture" class can post comments on class-related topics. Last quarter he encouraged the class to create a home page on the World Wide Web.
Given Corn's enthusiasm for new technologies, his students might be surprised to learn that this is the same faculty member who, until the winter of 1993, used computers mostly for word processing and searching for library books.
Then, along came e-mail.
"This was so clearly a new kind of communication. It seemed to have great promise for working with students outside office hours," said Corn.
He quickly incorporated the concept of electronic forms of communication into his class without having had much experience with the new medium himself. A more collaborative learning experience was the result, he said. Students who were normally quiet during class tended to express their opinions more freely on- line.
"I was amazed at how talkative they became on the newsgroup," Corn said.
One freshman, who was "painfully shy" but a "whiz on the newsgroup," began speaking up in class midway through the quarter. The feedback she received from classmates about her on-line musings apparently helped boost her self-confidence.
"I've heard claims about [the benefits] of distance learning but I really had to see it to believe it," Corn said.
A small but growing number of Stanford faculty, like Corn, are incorporating computer technologies into their teaching. Blackboards and chalk are being set aside for multimedia technologies that allow texts to be combined with images and sound to help illustrate abstract principles and concepts. Classroom conversations are being extended after hours through the use of on- line technologies. And professors are embarking upon collaborative teaching efforts with colleagues at other universities via the Internet.
The use of World Wide Web pages and e-mail on campus has ballooned over the past year, according to Glen Mueller, chief information officer at Information Technology Systems and Services. According to the latest statistics compiled by Mueller's group, there are more than 2,000 individual-user home pages and 200 group home pages on the Leland system, which is a distributed UNIX-based system that serves full-time affiliates of Stanford. During Dead Week of Spring Quarter 1995, almost 1 million e-mail messages were sent to Leland e-mail accounts. E-mail usage is growing by 200 percent per year. Currently, there are more than 20,000 active Leland e-mail accounts.
Despite the ever expanding use of electronic forms of communication, many professors still are taking a pass when it comes to using these technologies in the classroom. Not because of computer-phobia, says Jon Dick, a technology resources specialist for new faculty at Stanford, but because they are not sure whether the educational benefits of high-tech teaching will be great enough to outweigh the time and effort they must put into learning new technologies.
"These are people who have pushed themselves to the absolute edge already," Dick said. "They work 12- to 14-hour days, six to seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. And they work really, really hard. They don't pick up something that has a huge time commitment without dropping something else. And they don't want to drop anything else. They are doing what they are doing for important reasons."
The amount of time that it takes faculty members to pick up new technologies varies, depending on how computer literate they are and what they want to accomplish with the technology. In Corn's case, starting a newsgroup was simply a matter of making a phone call to a computer technician on campus. But ironing out the logistical snags of integrating the newsgroup into his class curriculum has been an ongoing problem.
"It came into existence then all of us neophytes struggled to learn how to use it," he said. "We'd lose lines of text. There were problems formatting the text so that everyone else could read it. Students would use other people's accounts to post their messages and forget to sign it."
The home page was trickier to create, but one of Corn's students took on the task as a project.
Other students were less enthusiastic, however. In course evaluations, Corn said some of his students commented that they didn't like spending so much class time talking about technical problems. "Like any new thing, there will be a lot of confusion until it becomes second nature," Corn said.
Political science Professor John Manley, for one, remains skeptical that computer-aided learning is worth all the trial and error.
"It seems to me that one still thinks with the outmoded brain," said the 56-year-old professor, who doesn't use a word processor. In fact, he has never learned how to type.
But Manley doesn't consider himself to be a technophobe. "If someone came and told me about the amazing results that could be achieved [with computers to improve teaching and learning], I'd consider learning how to use them," he said. "So far, no one has done that."
Luis Fraga is more inclined than his colleague to believe that technology can yield impressive results in the classroom. "This is our common future as a society and it makes no sense to me that in instructing our students, we should not use all advanced means available to getting our points across to them," the associate professor of political science said.
Fraga, who uses computers for word processing, statistical calculations, bibliographic searches and e-mail correspondence, has toyed with the idea of using some computer simulation games for his class on urban politics. "The main reason that I do not use computers in my classes right now is because of the anticipated time commitment that I would make to learning necessary software," Fraga said.
He envisions adopting multimedia technologies in the classroom five to 10 years down the line and hopes that "the technical support would be more available by that period of time." But he remains apprehensive about e-mail becoming an acceptable means of communication between faculty and students in a class.
"I already spend a full one and a half to two hours daily on e-mail, simply responding to professional and administrative inquiries. The prospect of spending another four hours or so a week on such communication is not very exciting," said Fraga, who also carries the additional responsibilities of being the director of the Center for Chicano Research.
Dealing with the diverse needs and attitudes of the faculty makes the task of figuring out how to use technology to enhance the quality of educati on particularly challenging for administrators.
Last year, President Gerhard Casper appointed the Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning (CTTL) to study how Stanford can enhance traditional teaching methods with technology. "We have a very innovative faculty, but it's all one person here and one person there. A lot of time is devoted to scrambling for money to make the innovations happen," said John Etchemendy, associate dean for the humanities, who chairs the commission.
The 25-member group has initiated several pilot projects, some of which have provided seed money for individual departments to explore promising innovations that Stanford might like to expand in the future. For example, CTTL is providing funds to the French and Italian Department to help develop a graduate level "video conference" course for students studying Italian at Stanford and Berkeley. If the course is successful, Etchemendy said, it could lead to a formal collaboration between the Italian departments of the two universities.
"It's very hard for three [Italian] faculty members to offer a Ph.D. program and to provide all of the classes that are necessary and all of the expertise that is necessary," Etchemendy said. "In fact, it's close to impossible. The same is true for Berkeley. In both cases the faculty are very good and very talented people. But alone, it's hard for them to offer Ph.D. programs when the universities can't afford to hire three more faculty."
While this might raise red flags for some professors who fear that the necessity to save dollars, rather than an effort to improve the quality of education, might be driving the use of technology, Etchemendy discounted those concerns. Budgetary pressures have been forcing departments to capitalize on their strengths and "not try to be everything to everybody" for several years, he said. "What the technology can do is take a situation of that sort and ameliorate it."
The latest idea to come out of CTTL - building a Center for Educational Innovation at Stanford - has piqued the interest of a number of professors who are currently using technology to support their teaching.
Over the course of the summer, about 30 faculty members have been meeting to discuss "what is currently being done at Stanford [in the context of computer-aided teaching], what the needs for such a center are, and how it should be structured," said Pat Devaney of the President's Office, who serves as staff coordinator to the commission. Information culled from these discussions will be used to help shape the proposal for the center, she said.
The ad hoc group, convened at CTTL's request, is being led by English Professor Larry Friedlander. The goal of the proposed center, according to Friedlander, is to help the university reconsider the ways in which technology will affect teaching and to "help figure out long-range planning in an environment where there is so much change."
A number of facilities, including the Curriculum Development Lab and Academic Software Development already exist to help faculty create materials, ranging from simple classroom presentations to interactive, multimedia courseware and software development. But these facilities are overburdened and only a small percentage of the faculty use them, Friedlander said.
One of the biggest challenges the university will face in the coming years is how to make computer resources available to the widest group of people. "Do we create models that are easy for [faculty] to pick up?" Friedlander asked. "Should we give them technical support? Should we have centers where they could come to learn if they wish? These are just some of the problems that we have in trying to think about what to do."
In the meantime, a good way to spark scholars' curiosity about technology seems to rest in an age-old practice: Give them a glimpse of what some of their cutting-edge colleagues are doing.
"Once they understand that [technology] is a way of permitting greater access and greater understanding of something, they become enthusiastic," Friedlander said.
In 1984 Friedlander knew little about computers but suspected they could help him overcome some of the difficulties he encountered in teaching the role of performance in the interpretation of Shakespearean plays. A computer with good graphic capability, he reasoned, could allow students to produce a "movie" that could be played out on the computer screen and synchronized with a tape recording of the dialogue.
Working in collaboration with the Faculty Author Development Project (which later evolved to become Academic Software Development), Friedlander developed a computer software program called TheaterGame, which allows students to stage their own interpretations of a play. He also developed Paris/Theater, a program that provides maps of Paris and related informaiton from the 12th century to the present.
The Paris program allows students to select any period of time to see what plays were being performed in different parts of the city. In addition, it charts important cultural and political movements of each period and shows how they link up with different interpretations of a production.
"I was very interested in finding ways in which literary classes could get some notion of the theatrical and the real-life experiences of literature that are hard to conceptualize in large lecture classes," Friedlander said. The programs provided supplemental information that couldn't be grasped as easily with textual materials alone, he added.
Associate Professor Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano of the Spanish and Portuguese Department also was drawn to the interdisciplinary benefits that electronic technology offers over print. With a Bing Technology in Teaching Grant in hand, Yarbro- Bejarano worked with the Academic Software Development group to create Chicana Art, a multimedia database of works by leading Chicana artists. The digitized slides are linked to background material such as artists' statements, biographies and bilbliographies.
"I used to be very centered in print, and I would teach writing and literature," Yarbro-Bejarano was quoted as saying in a campus newsletter called Speaking of Computers. "Now, I can't consider just looking at text anymore. I feel like we've barely scratched the surface."
Despite the almost childlike excitement many faculty members exhibit over the prospects of technology, they often find themselves getting bogged down by funding and dealing with copyright and licensing issues, said Barbara Maliska, director of Academic Software Development.
Digitization of materials can be a costly part of a software development project for faculty, but government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, which fund innovative developments in technology, "don't consider digitization innovative," Maliska said. As a result, faculty must spend a significant portion of their time scrambling for money to support these types of projects, she said.
In the process of creating home pages, multimedia databases or educational software, faculty members also must ensure that they are adhering to copyright and licensing laws. Since these are relatively new media for packaging information, copyright and licensing laws aren't clear-cut, Maliska said.
"The poor faculty are faced with a challenge in figuring out how to deal with these issues that are much more complicated than they have been in the print realm," said Maliska, who would like the proposed Center for Educational Innovation to help professors sort out these gray areas.
Many professors who are developing home pages for their classes have chosen to sidestep the cumbersome copyright and licensing problems by posting unofficial home pages with restricted access. Using this loophole, students in Friedlander's "Literature of Fantasy" class were able to amass considerable information on the Internet. They created different categories of fantasy, such as science fiction, horror and romance, and filled each category with pictures, critical comments, survey results and links to related Web sites.
"They came up with material I had never seen and they also generated new information," Friedlander said. "The science- fiction group, for example, sent out a survey on the Web to find out what kind of people were reading science fiction and why. They received lots of responses from all over the world, analyzed them and put them back on the Web as an information page. They did things I as a teacher couldn't provide in class."
The number of faculty members who are providing material through the Leland World Wide Web server has jumped from zero to 52 in the past academic year, according to Conrad Damon, a systems software developer for Stanford's Distributed Computing and Communication Systems. About half of the classes with Web sites are in the Computer Science Department, he said. Other disciplines with a heavy Web presence include anthropology, education, political science and foreign languages.
Some teachers use the Web as another means of providing basic information, such as homework assignments and office hours. Many use the Web's hyperlink capabilities to provide links to related information at Stanford or elsewhere. Pictures, sounds and movies, for example, can be included in a Web document.
When French Professor John Barson decided to have his students post home pages on the Web, he deliberately gave them the freedom to choose their own subject matter. The open-ended assignment was particularly helpful for students who were not interested in pursuing language studies beyond the introductory level, Barson said, because it allowed them to share their enthusiasm about a topic of their choosing through French.
The end result reflected such creativity on the part of his students that Barson occasionally finds himself browsing through the home pages at his leisure.
Sections on the home pages that Barson's students produced include stories and poems for children, a sports page with French explanations about Stanford varsity teams, a guided tour of impressionist paintings, a column modeled after "Dear Abby," a review of the Bay Area's best eating and drinking establishments and a clickable world map allowing students to recount their travel experiences.
They also posted a series of photographs with text on the Web in which they recounted their adventures learning French in an experimental classroom equipped with bean bag chairs and an assortment of other lightweight furniture, 20 Powerbook 540C's, wireless networking and a video projector. The flexible environment made the classroom ideal for small group activities, class presentations, role-playing or individual study.
During a typical class hour, Barson said one group of students could be found composing dialogue for an original play in one corner of the room. At the opposite end, another group of students might be listening to a song while reading the lyrics off their computer screens and filling in the blanks of the text wherever necessary.
Using the wireless network and a program that allows an instructor to view any student's computer screen, student transcriptions of various assignments can be projected to the class for collaborative review.
"I invariably enter the classroom in a sense of expectancy and emerge in a state of complete surprise as to what has transpired," Barson said.
The flexible classroom isn't without glitches, however. "There were the usual failures of the system, such as the networks getting stuck or the computers going down," said Barson, who keeps back up diskettes and hard copies of everything. "But this, I just know is going to go away."
"Even when the systems go down, my teaching tends not to revert to traditional ways," he added. "My approach to learning and teaching isn't innovative because of technology. It derives its support from technology used when appropriate."
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