The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: November 3, 1995
Section: Information Technology
By Jeffrey R. Young
Barbara Johnson remembers the days of fumbling with handouts, photocopying hundreds of copies of her class syllabus, and, occasionally, misplacing a student's paper.
Those days are behind her, or so Ms. Johnson hopes. She has put the materials for her literature classes at the University of Connecticut at Storrs on the World-Wide Web. Her students look to the Internet, rather than to a stack of papers at the front of the lecture hall, to find out what to read each week. They can do some of the readings on line, hand in their papers electronically, and review exhibits and other materials on their personal computers or in the computer center.
Moving course materials to the computer network has done more than make Ms. Johnson's briefcase lighter. Her students, she says, spend more time "surfing" class information and even show it to friends who are not in the course. "The kids love it," she says. "They've grown up on video games. Why can't they read a book and play with a computer at the same time?"
More than 50 classes at Connecticut have set up similar "virtual classrooms" on the Web. And professors at many other institutions are putting their classes on line, sometimes as part of campuswide efforts but more often as individual attempts to take advantage of new technologies.
Interest in Web pages is growing, professors say, because the technology is easy to use, enables them to offer more-current information, and makes the syllabus more flexible, since it can be changed in mid-semester.
However, some of them worry about whether their campuses have enough computers. Some are concerned that putting materials on Web services could violate copyright law. And a few students see the Web pages as a distraction and prefer to read printed materials.
The idea of using the Internet as an extension of the classroom is not new. Since the beginning of the global network, universities have seen cyberspace as a possible extension of the classroom. For many years, they have set up electronic mailing lists to encourage discussions. Gopher, an Internet tool developed at the University of Minnesota four years ago, was quickly adopted by some professors, who put syllabi and class announcements on the network for the convenience of students.
The World-Wide Web, however, offers the ability to integrate charts, graphs, photographs, sound, and video. Students can connect to related material on computers around the world by clicking with a mouse on highlighted words.
Professors usually begin with simple Web pages, delivering the same handouts they've printed and distributed in the past. "This is an easy, inexpensive, and painless way to distribute administrative information," says John M. Unsworth, director of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
The Web also makes it easy for students to keep track of the information during the semester, professors say. It provides "a one-stop location for reviewing lecture presentations, getting old exams, getting announcements, reading questions and answers, finding the office hours of teaching assistants, finding out about their grades, and much more," says Steven C. Myers, an associate professor of economics at the University of Akron.
Putting the information on line is surprisingly simple, even for those who are not Web experts. Professors say they quickly learned Hypertext Markup Language, the series of codes needed to prepare computer files to be presented on the Web. "You can learn this in a day," says Alan Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has put material for three classes on the Web.
The difficulty, professors say, is in finding time to get started. "I worked very hard to get this much together, on my own time and often staying up half the night," says David Bogler, a botany professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who created a Web page for his class in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Not everyone is eager to convert class materials to digital form, however. Some professors say they simply don't have the opportunity to learn the new tricks of the Internet.
"Because there are very few enlightened administrators, not to mention incentives, at the typical organization, this will require quite some time before it is commonplace," says Rodney P. Riegle, an education professor at Illinois State University, who has put at least one of his classes on the Web.
Others are afraid of making too much information available. "I do have lecture notes typed up, but I decided that if I made these available, then students would not go to lecture," says Mr. Bogler.
Many students also are not ready to break with the familiar way of doing things. "Generally, I have to say I prefer hard copies, because I'm something of an underliner," says Holly D. Loth, a student in one of Mr. Filreis's English classes at Penn. She says she spends two or three hours a week reading materials from the class Web page. Although students can print out anything they need, this can be inconvenient if they don't own a printer and have to pay to use a university printer.
Most students and professors who have tried the Web are won over by the technology -- and have plenty of examples of how the virtual classroom has helped them.
Gary Hardcastle, a professor of philosophy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, discovered that the World-Wide Web could deliver materials with an immediacy that is beyond that of most printed texts. He made Time magazine's articles about the Internet, for example, available to his science-and-technology class last spring before they were available on newsstands. He added a link to Time's "Pathfinder" site, where the articles were posted, and the class was able to discuss them at its next meeting. "All of this would have been impossible without a Web site," he says.
Dale W. Kirmse, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Florida, says the Web gives his class access to materials unavailable anywhere else. His "Introduction to Chemical Engineering" class uses the Web to gain access to data from a local laboratory, so that students do not have to learn from hypothetical situations. "We're trying to set up examples and prototypes of how you use this," he says.
Others see the Web as a chance to look over the shoulders of their peers, to see how they structure their classes. "The Web can make teaching a more collaborative enterprise, where we can take more advantage of what each other is doing," says John H. Krantz, a professor of psychology at Hanover College.
Richard Mendez, an administrator in the computation center at the University of Texas at Austin, was among the first to see the Web's ability to improve communication among professors. Last year, he set up a Web service called "World Lecture Hall" (http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/) as a guide to classes that use the technology. Visitors can find materials there for courses in more than 50 disciplines, from the humanities to engineering.
"I wanted to create a page that would inspire U.T. faculty to copy others at other universities," he says. "So they would say, 'Gosh, if Notre Dame's doing it, we should be able to do it.'"
Some entries on Mr. Mendez's service offer materials so comprehensive that it's possible to take the class from any computer on the Internet. "Anyone can browse it, can read it, can learn from it, whether they are at the university or not," he says.
Many professors who are listed in "World Lecture Hall" say they get e-mail from people all over the world, with questions, comments, and an occasional correction of a fact or figure. "This is changing the way that universities in general relate to the outside world," says Virginia's Mr. Unsworth. "You have not only the local audience, but anyone in the world could stumble in."
Cathy Ball, an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, who put a tutorial for Old English on the Web, says she's been surprised by how many outsiders consult her as "some sort of omniscient, on-line, Old English professor." She advises colleagues, "Before you make your materials available on the Web, make sure you have enough spare time to handle the responses."
Some of those on line from outside the campus are likely to be parents of students, professor say. Some job-hunting graduate students and professors hope that colleagues with positions to fill are looking in, too. "I just finished my degree, and I'm looking for a teaching job," says Nick Strobel, who has put all of his lecture notes on line for the astronomy class he teaches at the University of Washington. "This is a way to say, 'Here, look what I've done.'"
Perhaps the greatest benefit, professors say, is watching students become more involved with the material as they experiment with the Internet. "In over two decades of college instruction, I have never received the sincere appreciation I now frequently get simply for giving them this opportunity to experience the Internet," says Illinois State's Mr. Riegle.
Not all of the students in Mr. Myers's economics class at Akron are so appreciative. Several complained in responses to a questionnaire that he spent too much time teaching the technology, rather than the subject matter. "I think that when you spend our time repeatedly going over this in class time, it does waste our time," wrote Kristy R. Yovicbin. "We did not sign up to take your class to learn how to surf the Net, but to learn econ."
Others in higher education see additional factors limiting the use of the World-Wide Web for class materials. "I think that the really interesting and hard issue is the access issue," says Marc Eichen, director of academic computing at Hunter College of the City University of New York. His institution doesn't have an extensive computer system, almost all of the students live off the campus, and many do not own computers.
He notes, however, that information often can be more accessible on computers than in university buildings. "The reserve room is not open at 4:30 in the morning, but the Web is open. The Web is always open."
The three classes that Hunter has put on the Web this semester are an experiment to see if they are worth the time and effort of converting documents, he says. The college plans to survey the 750 student participants on their reaction to the service.
Professors say another potential problem is the fallibility of the technology. Susan M. Blanchard, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University, who has put her class on line, says a power failure brought an end to her demonstration of class Web pages one day. "One of the hazards of on-line demos is you never know when the power's going to go out or when the computer's going to crash," she says.
Other professors are concerned with how much information they can legally place on the Web. Some subjects, such as history or classics, use older materials that are in the public domain. In other disciplines, publishers own the rights to many texts and images, and they don't want professors sharing them with the world at no charge.
"I'm still struggling with copyright issues," says Connecticut's Ms. Johnson, who wants to add more texts and images to her pages. "I don't want to get my school in trouble."
Some professors try to respect the interests of copyright owners by limiting Web-page access to students enrolled in the course.
Ignorance about copyright law and confusion over how it should be applied to computer networks are causing problems, says Carol Twigg, a vice-president of EDUCOM. "Professors are probably one by one violating copyright laws," she says. EDUCOM is a consortium of about 600 colleges and 100 companies dedicated to increasing the use of technology.
But Ms. Twigg is optimistic that the use of the Web is on the rise. "The next generation of faculty," she says, "are going to do this naturally."