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Author: Guillaume de Syon
Title: Teaching the Space Program with the World Wide Web: Challenges and Rewards of Assigning Online Readings
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2000

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Source: Teaching the Space Program with the World Wide Web: Challenges and Rewards of Assigning Online Readings
Guillaume de Syon

vol. 3, no. 1, April 2000
Article Type: Report of Teaching Practices
PDF: Download full PDF [20kb ]

Teaching the Space Program with the World Wide Web: Challenges and Rewards of Assigning Online Readings

Guillaume de Syon

Based on experience acquired in the teaching of a space program course at a small college, the author offers suggestions on the effective use of web resources and the need to balance it with "traditional" reading sources. While web research is fraught with problems due to the varying quality of Internet resources available, it can also yield new research interests and fruitful classroom discussion.

The purpose of this article is to offer an overview of the challenges and rewards encountered in teaching a history of technology course using web readings and assignments. Based on previous experience teaching a mid-level honors course on the space program, I believe such readings often constitute double-edged swords for teachers, who are already attempting to inculcate undergraduates with a modicum of subject knowledge. Furthermore, the availability of such readings can limit, rather than expand, classroom discussion. A careful balance between online and traditional material is, therefore, essential to a successful course. The following is an example of the use of web reading in a traditional setting that involved a series of meetings with students.

.01. Set-up

The course's objectives include instilling an awareness of the role of space in politics, culture, and business through a combination of specific case studies and a chronological analysis, starting in the late nineteenth century. Themes include early science fiction fantasies, the Nazi rocket program, the space race, the pros and cons of human space exploration, and the development of space business. In the process, students also had to develop a balanced critique of the rhetoric of science and technology. Because it borrows from several disciplines, the course methodology varies from analysis of historical events to discussion of media issues and economics. Such a wide-ranging survey complicates the reading selection process, as does the limited availability of readings available in a small, budget-constrained library. This factor, combined with strengthened copyright restrictions, makes utilization of web readings an obvious choice. Not only can it circumvent these problems, but certain information may likely be more current than that found in existing print sources. Furthermore, the fact that a course on advanced technology also includes one of its manifestations makes it even more attractive to some students. To ensure a balance, however, the use of traditional classroom readings remains essential, since meetings do not take place in a "wired" setting.

.02. Selection of assignments

The guiding principle selection of online readings should remain the same as that for regular readings: to make the learning process more active and participatory. Students should come to class prepared to discuss the material rather than simply sit and take notes. Other criteria include accessibility, download time, ease of printing, and public domain availability, in case students lose web access and needed to consult a hard copy on reserve. While instructors in electronic classrooms may easily place the material on-screen, some may wish to consider the advantages of non-interactive classroom time. The advantage of remaining in a traditional classroom setting revolves around teaching methods that stress personal contact between teacher/professor and student. Classroom discussion can flow as freely as do Internet exchanges, building upon each participant's contributions perhaps more directly. Although it is true that an e-mail discussion list would certainly prove beneficial in a general course, this option was not chosen in this particular case.

From the start, the most obvious, and best, choice was NASA's web site ( which can serve as a gateway or portal to several other related pages. Because NASA's mission statement includes a clause that requires the civilian agency to keep the public informed on all developments, students have access to literally thousands of archived documents. The site and its links are clearly divided and regularly updated. In addition, most text sections are indexed into manageable sized categories, even for low speed units (24,000 BPS). The NASA History Office has undertaken a program of digitizing previously published space studies. These studies range from pioneering works on space exploration, such as Hermann Nordun's writings, to analytical monographs on the organization and its predecessor, NACA. Students can refer back to these pages during their research or follow links to other NASA sites, such as the Kennedy Space Center's descriptive project histories (, JPL's space probes (, or the Johnson Center's astronaut biographies (

The selection of space program sites, other than the United States, however, can be more frustrating. It is essential that students have access to data concerning other nations' space programs in order to discuss, compare, and contrast national priorities and policy-making. With the exception of the Japanese ( and French ( space agencies, access to data on other national space programs was much harder. This was in certain circumstances due to limited updates, as was the case of the Russian space agency (, or indexes that lack current links, as occurred with the European Space Agency site ( Such problems are being remedied, but access to these pages can be difficult due to site maintenance as well as the volume of online traffic in different time zones.

Other types of sites become quite useful at various stages in the teaching process. The rhetoric of science and technology, as exemplified in the "science dividend" associated with the Apollo lunar program, is ideal for debates on the value of space exploration. In the process, a critical reading of space advocacy groups' positions offers an ideal starting point. A growing list of such groups includes the National Space Society (, the Space Frontier Foundation ( and the ProSpace lobby group (, which includes links to the aerospace industry. In their task of debating the value of a space program as well as the advantages and shortcomings of sending humans into space, students must demonstrate an understanding of both points of view and frame them in the contexts of culture, nationalism, and historical precedents.

.03. Challenges to the Web Approach

Resources on the World Wide Web cannot effectively address all themes related to global space programs. The period of the Nazi rocket program offers a case in point. Exponential growth of the Internet also means a greater risk of encountering sites of questionable credibility. The combination of rocket technology enthusiasts and Third Reich "buffs" leads to a staggering number of non-analytical data collections, albeit with interesting illustrations. Facts border on the laudatory, and some web site authors become apologists for Nazi engineers. Although exceptions do of course exist, they are so few and far between (museums, memorial sites to Nazi slave labor, etc.) that in this phase of the course, it makes it very difficult to assign specific sites on this topic. This may of course change, depending on the instructor's purpose. A course segment on public memory of V-2 rockets, for example, may actually thrive on deconstructing enthusiasts' pages. Otherwise, books are the best way to proceed to maintain quality standards for this segment of the course.

As the course proceeds, it is essential to monitor and assess student use of the Internet and World Wide Web. Non-traditional students, many of whom work and have families, are likely to run to the web for quick solutions, as is the case with many traditional students, as well. In order to pass the course, all students were required to complete an extensive research paper on a pre-approved topic. The web became the tool of choice for the students involved, however this proved counterproductive at times, when students either had trouble locating documentation or uncovered data from sites that appeared questionable. Indeed, the space program becomes a favorite focal point for many enthusiasts that post material of varying quality. Although a briefing on how to evaluate a web site helps, it still proves to be insufficient. Therefore, as early as possible, students should provide their instructor with a list of web site addresses they found of possible use so that he or she might be able to verify the sites' credibility. The Internet is an ideal means for promulgating so-called urban legends, which can lead to embarrassing situations for the students. Neil Armstrong's bogus quote "good luck Mr. Gorski," supposedly spoken when he was departing the moon, is an excellent case in point.

Although plagiarism was an obvious concern, it turned out to be less problematic than originally anticipated. This was, in large part, due to the composition of the class, which was exclusively honor students, as well as the very use of the Internet. Plagiarism often associates itself with another problem, though. Students tend to ignore print resources, even when these items are readily accessible. Therefore, they miss or overlook important clues in their research. As librarians bemoan the lack of research methodology, whereby students tend to choose books at eye-level or with interesting covers, so too does Internet research reflect a bizarre selection process. Requiring a bibliography of both print and electronic sources prior to approving the topic is essential to avoid such pitfalls.

As part of the discussion on the rhetoric of science and technology, students must also bring to class clippings that discuss space. The goal of the exercise is to ascertain how much this theme has influenced the public through its coverage in mass media sources. Often, students rely on the Internet and download the latest NASA communiqué, claiming an economy of time. It becomes essential to clarify the importance of traditional media sources, as well as Internet based ones, to achieve a balanced utilization of resources.

.04. Conclusion: Rewards of Using the Web

Although it may require closer monitoring, students display far greater imagination in their research when provided with Internet access. The theme of the course naturally lends itself to such imagination. It also leads to discussions on a wide range of topics that include: the rhetoric of space exploration in science fiction series paralleling NASA missions; the theoretical notions surrounding planetary travel; the economics of space colonies; and notions of the heroic as it relates to space. New strategies and resources, as well as a willingness to go the extra step in tracking down a source, often result from such an approach. In addition, it might potentially serve to reduce the incidence of plagiarism, given the instructor has a greater opportunity to monitor and verify student work. Another advantage involves cost. Even though assignment topics were far more diverse, the students were not unduly burdened and the instructors were able to avoid the pitfall of course packets and associated copyright restrictions

While several scholars have recently argued in the pages of the JAHC for the information boon such a democratization of web resources constitutes, new problems have arisen that did not exist to such a degree when research sources were limited to paper journals and books. The web, however, is still in its infancy. Just as other advanced technologies required a time of classroom adaptation, so too will there be a delayed response time in adopting the Internet, due not only to obvious resistance on the part of the professors, but because of student response as well. The best solution, therefore, is to achieve a balance between online and traditional reading assignments.

Guillaume de Syon

Albright College