How the New Information Technologies have Changed my Ideas About Teaching
A Talk Given to the Library and Information Technologies Service
Mount Holyoke College
13 April 1998

Let me clear up a common misapprehension: I am not anti-book. Books have three main advantages over the new information technologies.

  1. There is no substitute for a book to teach students how to construct and understand complex and subtle arguments.
  2. Books will always be easier to read—cathode ray screens are unnatural.
  3. Books will always be more permanent. Storage of electronic information is transient and quickly becomes outdated.

Having said that, let me speak to the ways the new information technologies can supplement books in the teaching process.

But, first, a caveat: When I use the term "information technology," I really am only speaking of the electronic transmission of information, and then only in a vague and muddled way. We don’t fully understand what is the new technologies are, and are able to only speak about them from a purely static perspective. This talk, for example, would have been quite different six months ago. It will be different, six months from now. Much of what I think is important now will be trivial in a decade. The best we can do is speculate about how things are changing, in much the same way sailors were forced to speculate about their position before the sextant.

The traditional view of teaching assumes that there is an efficiency in training a single individual in a particular body of knowledge and then creating a structure by which this information can be transmitted to individuals who are unaware of that body of knowledge. In college teaching, this model generally consists of a single instructor who carefully identifies a particular issue, selectively chooses the best readings to transmit information to the students, and then talks with the student about that information, either in the form of a lecture or a carefully structured series of question. The incentive to attend class and to pay attention to the readings is often fulfilled by examinations.

This model has been around for centuries and it has been quite effective—indeed, I do not see any major reason to change this structure dramatically. The role of the teacher as an organizer of information and as a motivator will never change, nor can it really change.

However, there have always been problems with this model, and it is my contention that these problems can be alleviated somewhat by the new information technologies.

The Question of Reading

First, there has always been a problem is the rather passive nature of reading. Many of us make this passivity a virtue: we have romantic visions of sitting in our most comfortable chair, limited interruptions, and an almost wistful dreamlike state which allows us to follow our own threads of an argument as we stare out the window. In this ideal world, the reader and the author are engaged in a close dance.

I doubt that this is how our students read. I suspect that readings are done under pressure and with a very clear priority on getting simply the essential points. Indeed, under the circumstances, this is probably a good thing for our students to learn. But it does mean that the essential character of the book—its ability to weave a complex and nuanced argument—is being lost. Furthermore, I also believe that the number of people in this society who read substantive books is declining. Our students are increasingly coming from a society which gets its information in a myriad of ways, and our students know better than we do about how to get useful information from these alternative sources.

We can make reading a dynamic process. Let me briefly describe fours ways to enhance the relationship between students and their assigned readings.

The Question of Writing

As is the case with reading, writing is too often a solitary process. A student will take information and process it on a printed page. Too often, the process is solitary. The student has limited input on her initial ideas and cannot really rely upon the sustained presence of others to test her ideas or to aid their development. More importantly, the typical student is usually writing for an audience of one, and too often the exercise involves a calculation made by the student about what the instructor wants to read as opposed to developing her own ideas.

Software is being developed, and I hope to use it next year, which will allow students and faculty to write more collaboratively. Collaboration is a nice attribute, but, for me, it is only a means to the end of making the writing process more dynamic. In essence, the software allows a student to place her work on the Internet and to allow others to comment and annotate the work. Those who critique the work are identified as unique, identifiable individuals, and the comments can be retained to reflect the cumulative effect of revision. The instructor can also participate in this process and students can benefit from almost immediate feedback on their work.

The Question of Source Evaluation

One of the tremendous difficulties of the Internet is learning how to evaluate sources. In truth, this is one of the most important things we do in the classroom right now. Syllabi reflect the instructor’s judgment as to what the most important readings on a subject are and the assumption is that these readings are the best available. The screening process is one of the most important functions of an instructor and I do not wish to see that process eliminated at all.

The effect of the screening, however, is that we do not explicitly teach our students how to assess the value of readings on their own. I suspect that this is a serious omission on our part—very rarely will individuals be told what information is valid when confronted with difficult questions. Source evaluation was a critical part of the Internet project I assigned for my world politics class in the fall of 1997. I spent a lot of time working with students trying to figure what information was reliable, and at some point I hope to have some guidelines articulated that will facilitate this process.

The Internet presents a powerful challenge to this issue. The Internet has given a voice to many who have been denied an opportunity to articulate their views. In my opinion, this aspect of the Internet is its most important advantage: I can get information that has generally been unavailable to me before. But the Internet is also a haven for the ignorant, the vulgar, and the mean-spirited. As scholars we need to enrich the offerings of the Internet as well as teach our students how to find the valuable and useful sources of information.