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Author: Felicia L. Carr
Title: Using the World Wide Web as a Teaching Tool in "An Introduction to American History": Some Technical and Ethical Difficulties
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Using the World Wide Web as a Teaching Tool in "An Introduction to American History": Some Technical and Ethical Difficulties
Felicia L. Carr

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Report of Teaching Practices

Using the World Wide Web as a Teaching Tool in "An Introduction to American History": Some Technical and Ethical Difficulties

Felicia L. Carr

Abstract: This article reviews the development of a on-line course at George Mason University and covers two main concerns: 1) the technical aspects and problems of putting a course on line, such as design elements, assignment creation, scanning difficulties, and the enormous time investment; and, 2) the long-term ethical and professional consequences of developing on-line courses, including academic labor and intellectual property rights issues. The author argues that as technology and web tools are developed for teaching, faculty must remain central to both teaching and course development, and that faculty must become more aware of commercial developments and pressures that can help or hinder their teaching goals and the role of teaching in the academy.

As educators rush to embrace the use of technology in the classroom, it is important to consider the possible implications of our projects. Do these innovations truly deliver on their promises to save us time or to improve our teaching? Do these changes influence the very nature of teaching in ways that may not ultimately benefit the profession or the student? To contribute to the discussion of these issues, this article will look at the development of a new on-line course at George Mason University.

There are two main groups of concerns at issue in a discussion of developing an Internet course. The first includes the technical aspects of putting a course on line, such as design elements and assignment creation, and also the headaches, such as the disappearance of key web sites, scanning difficulties, and enormous time investments. These aspects of the course are important to those who are considering developing an on-line course, in order to provide a more complete picture of what is involved. The second group of concerns revolves around ethical and professional questions. As our team worked on the project, we began to think about the long-term consequences of our work, in particular the grant administrators' goals to reduce faculty time in the classroom, to reduce faculty involvement in course development, and to end up with a course that the university would own and sell. This project brings up questions of academic labor and intellectual property rights. In light of this, I will argue throughout this paper that as we develop technology and web tools for teaching, we need to counteract the ethical problems that we currently face. We need to ensure that faculty remain central to teaching and course development, and that faculty must become more aware of commercial developments and pressures that can help or hinder their teaching goals. I say this, not in a knee jerk reaction to protect the humanities and its besieged faculty, but in belief that faculty are essential to the learning process and from the understanding that technology is being touted as the way to cut costs through the reduction of faculty.

The development of the course was made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The grant proposal was written by Suzanne Smith and Michael O'Malley of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The course, an "Introduction to American History—Civil War and After," is based on once a week lectures and once a week review sessions. Students spend the rest of their time working on the web with on-line materials including the syllabus, primary materials, links to related sites, and web-based assignments. The syllabus is available for your review at <>.

A review of the web site will reveal that design was a central concern in our development. Many of us are more concerned with getting the basic info presented then we are with how it looks, but our team felt, given the design standards that exist for the web, that design was an important element of this project. We created a "look" for our site that is repeated on every page and for every assignment to create a unified feel that always lets the viewer know where she is. When a user links to an outside source, it is obvious she has left our project and moved on to another. We were also concerned with legibility and readibilty. Thus, backgrounds were kept simple, as were titles and headers. While we understand concerns that design can be esoteric, and we know students working on web projects often focus on design at the expense of content, we feel strongly that a clear, unified and professional appearance adds credibility to the project and to ease of using the material.

The overall course design was meant to cut classroom time. Student do not attend the usual two weekly lectures. They attend lecture once a week with one review section per week. Review sections were designed to be handled by teaching assistants, again reducing faculty time in the classroom. In addition to these activities, students were also responsible for covering web-based materials. The web-based assignments were broken into two categories—self-directed reading and exploration assignments and writing assignments. There were also on-line self-given and non-graded "quizzes." To illustrate how the course works and the relationship between the web materials and structure of the course, I will overview a key section of the course—the unit on Reconstruction. In the Reconstruction assignment students investigated the movement in Congress, spearheaded by the Radical Republicans, to give land in the south to the Freedmen. Students reviewed the primary materials on the site and analyzed the positions for and against the "forty acres and a mule" plan. The unit began with an overview essay written specifically for this assignment. Students then were instructed to proceed to the primary materials section. This section contained materials such as editorials from The New York Times and The New Orleans Picayune, testimonies from the Freedmen, records from the Freedman's Bureau, letters from key military figures, and testimonies from The Congressional Record.

The students did very well on this assignment and they were eager to analyze primary materials. The students relish the role of researcher and archivist. We found that the papers on the Reconstruction assignment were better than the average freshmen history papers. The students enjoy analyzing key questions rather than memorizing key information. The students used and quoted sources more and developed better arguments. Some even offered their own plans for compensating the Freedmen. On the other self-directed and non-graded units, the students have not done as well. It seems that having a graded component connected to the assignment is a central factor in how seriously the students take the units. The mid-terms were below average, which supports the observation that sections that were not linked immediately to a grade were not as well covered. Although these midterms prepared us for the worst in terms of overall course outcome, the finals were significantly better than both the midterms and the finals for similar courses.

Overall all the course has been a success, but it would not be a complete picture of the course development if we did not relate the technical difficulties that we encountered in the preparation of this course. Clearly we have elements in our favor that other departments or faculty may not have. Since the Center for History and New Media has its own server, we did not have fight university computing services for access to a server and we had unlimited storage space for our pages. We had easy access to great equipment. We had the financial benefits of the grant which paid for our time, including over 500 hours of graduate student assistance. This gave us an enormous time advantage over faculty who may be considering doing this on their own.

The headaches can be grouped into three main categories: one) external web-site problems, two) internal technical difficulties, and three) source problems. For the first category, external web site problems, pertains to linking to other key information on the web and having it disappear before the class began, and even worse, while the class was running. In an effort to mitigate the potential for this to disrupt the course, Hot Dog was used to download key sites and save them on the server. This way the complete site was in storage and if it disappeared it could be added it to our page. Because this method is time consuming, however, every external site was not downloaded and stored and smaller sites were lost. Working with web sites on a long-term basis in this way called to light the volatility of the materials on the web.

The second set of problems we encountered were the internal technical difficulties. These included problems with scanning and HTML editors. The scanning program froze time and time again. (We used Omni PagePro as our scanning software.) We also had problems regarding the material that was being scanned. Because much of it was from old newspaper clippings from old, worn microfilm, the scanner had difficulty scanning the text at all. Scanners work best on larger fonts that are clear and distinct. This meant considerable time was spent correcting the scanned materials and occasionally going back to the old-fashioned method of typing things over. We also had problems with the HTML editor we used—Claris Home Page. There were command problems and we also discovered a browser incompatibility with pages created on Claris. We have since switched to a new HTML editor—GoLive Cyber Studio.

The third problem we encountered, source problems, is similar to problems any research project might encounter. We had to decide how to balance the primary and secondary materials used for the project and to determine the most credible sources. In order to save time on some sections, we wanted to use materials already available on the web. This was easier for topics that have captured a wider audience, in particular the decision to drop the bomb. Other topics presented problems. There was less material on the web for Reconstruction and almost none for the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas debates. Even the topics that had more material available presented problems because there was so much to go through to find the best, most solid and verifiable information.

Other difficulties stem from the teaching experience so far. Both Professors O'Malley and Smith have reported a less satisfying teaching experience. Reduced time in the classroom means less opportunity to get to know the students, to assess how they are doing, and to determine where adjustments need to be made. There is no time to build community or to provide the ongoing graded assignments that help keep the students on track with the material. Another complication that had not been anticipated was how self-directed units would affect the discussion sections. Students are not coming prepared to discuss the same material. Because the units are self-directed, students are reading at different paces, covering different materials and choosing to follow different links—all of which makes the discussion sections less helpful. The flexibility that is a key feature for the course, and which students have reported as one of the best features, has undermined the unity of the course.

The motivated students are doing well and have reported finding the new format exciting and engaging. The less motivated students are not doing well. For them this format is not as conducive to understanding the material or even getting through it. They seem to be suffering the most from the reduced contact with faculty.

The next group of concerns that I would like to address are the ethical and professional issues that the development of this course raised for our team. The ethical problems encountered stem primarily from the purpose of the grant. The Mellon foundation is seeking ways to reduce labor costs which in turn directly influence teaching hours and contact with students. The history department struggled over whether or not to participate in this project. It was decided that it would be better to be a part of these new developments, than to ignore them, although we have reservations about participating.

There is a developing trend to view teachers as superfluous in the classroom—a trend exemplified by the very Mellon grant that funded our experiment and in the popular press when we hear professors berated for being inefficient or lazy. We even hear it from other professors such as Eugene Cotter, who was recently quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education saying "in my view, you don't even need a teacher." He was referring to his new project, a digital dictionary entitled The Roots of English. But based on our experience so far with our on-line course, students do need teachers. Materials alone won't engage the students. The materials have always been there. Before this course was on-line, students had access to Foner's wonderful collection of primary documents on Reconstruction. An on-line project makes materials more accessible and provides links to related subjects—such as the genealogy project for Freedmen—but they alone can't turn students into dedicated, active learners.

Based on their experience in the course so far Professors Smith and O'Malley now strongly feel that reducing teaching hours and contact with the students has a detrimental effect on the teaching process and very likely course outcomes. What makes this course good for the students is the flexibility to work at their own pace and new access to archival materials. Yet this very flexibility made it more difficult for the professors to lead discussion. The reduced teaching time, which may eventually save labor time, if a cohort of basic courses is developed, shared and used again, is detrimental to the learning process for many students. And this potential for a reduction in labor time raises other ethical and professional issues as well. If teaching time and course development time are reduced as a result of the uses of the new technology, where does that leave professors and students?

As it now stands, this course is a gain for the profession in that it is currently available to all history teachers at no cost. The course could be a loss for the profession, however, if it becomes a prepackaged course that is taught without faculty involvement—a possibility that is more related to the desire to cut labor costs on the part of administrators and legislators, than an inherent "evil" of the technology we are developing. One of the key ethical issues then is the question of who will teach and how these teachers will be treated.

We argue then that technology in itself is not at fault for the ethical dilemmas we are encountering. Commercial pressures have been brought to bear on the university long before the world wide web created new possibilities for sharing information—the pressure to teach more with less is not new and neither is the desire to reach students off-campus. After all, correspondence courses have been around since the nineteenth century. The course itself does not have to be based on the idea of teaching without faculty. It could be taught with one faculty person and no teaching assistants. The course and the technology aren't creating our ethical dilemma which is at least partly a reliance on adjunct labor. Digital media hasn't caused adjunct or graduate student exploitation. This exploitation comes from other sources that existed before the world wide web became accessible as a teaching tool.

In order to answer these questions we need to separate the technology itself from the ways it can be used. We feel that aspects of the course have the potential to be a positive contribution to the use of technology in teaching, and may be part of a positive transformation in teaching. The technology itself is neutral. But when used and developed in an atmosphere of exploitation, the potential is great for it to be put to negative uses. Unless faculty get more involved in current struggles over the allocation of resources, issues of intellectual property rights, the worsening exploitation of academic labor, and work to reach larger supportive constituencies, we may well find ourselves contributing to the negative possibilities this technology affords. While the access to primary materials and the ease of access to course materials are exciting and positive developments, I fear the power that this technology can lend itself to, and I feel that we are devoting ourselves to a new technology without making conscious decisions about how it will benefit or hurt both ourselves and our students.

Felicia L. Carr
Cultural Studies Program
George Mason University