Schooled in cyberspace; Education: Computers are significantly changing the way college courses are taught, though some defend traditional methods.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Peter Hughes and Barry Rice are clearly computer geeks, the types who talk about RAMs and ROMs and CPUs as if speaking a native language.

Rice, an assistant professor of accounting at Loyola College, celebrates the arrival of technology in the classroom. "The lecturer in front of the class, the talking head, just won't cut it with the MTV generation," he says.

But Hughes, a sophomore at St. John's College in An napolis, takes a different view: "It is so easy to get involved in all that, while the real problems of the world are being ignored, the problems of the soul."

Although such skeptics are still easy to find -- especially at a chalk-and-blackboard place such as St. John's -- technology is making a profound impact on college teaching.

And it has no more enthusiastic proponent than Rice, at 57 a veteran of 30 years of college teaching who started using computers in his classroom in 1992. Now his Powerpoint-delivered lectures are multimedia experiences of sight and sound; he teaches one of his courses almost completely on the Internet.

"With normal lectures, you have the problem of aiming at the best students, the slowest students or somewhere in the middle," Rice says. "When the lecture is on the Internet students can take as long as they need to master the material."

Rice makes his undergraduates meet once a week -- they get access to his lectures from their dormitory rooms -- but allows his graduate students to take a course completely online.

At St. John's, the dormitories are also Internet-ready, but not so students can take classes. Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft says it was mainly pressure from parents that got the dorms wired. "Students won't write home, but apparently they will send e-mail," he says.

Flaumenhaft is the first St. John's dean to have a computer in his office, but he talks of technology in terms of its possibilities. At most campuses, those possibilities are reality.

Research methods

"I assume my students all know how to get the class syllabus off the Web, to research on the Internet, to use it to search library resources, that they all know how to e-mail and other things that didn't exist a few years ago," says Diane Lee, who teaches education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"E-mail has completely replaced office hours," says Thomas Scheye, an English professor at Loyola, referring to the traditional way students and faculty interact outside class. "The students start working about the time I go to bed. They e-mail me their questions during the night, and I answer them in the morning."

Maynard Mack, a Shakespeare scholar who directs the Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, says e-mail's position between the spontaneity of the spoken word and the formality of the written word is revolutionary.

"Students who won't speak in class because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing will send e-mail because they have a chance to read it over," he says.

"It's counter-intuitive since it's a bunch of electrons in a machine, but it's a surprisingly intimate form of communication," he says. Mack put all honors students on list serve -- a computer message group -- to help them feel part of a smaller community amid the large university.

"There are students who sent me e-mails who I have been advising for two or three years that I wouldn't recognize if I walked by them," he says.

Loyola's Scheye adds, "For years, English teachers have been trying all sorts of things to get students to write -- short assignments, write two sentences, things like that.

"Now they will all write e-mails. We have a new generation of writers."

Lectures available on Web

More than e-mail is making an impact on campus.

UMBC sophomore Lauren Tarantino says many professors post Powerpoint versions of their lectures on Web sites before class. She says that doesn't mean she pays less attention in class.

"You realize the places that aren't clear, where you might want to pay particular attention and ask some questions," she says.

There is even a Web site -- StudentU.com -- that offers notes on key courses at 62 universities nationwide, including four at UMCP.

James McKusick, chair of the English department at UMBC, says six of the 40 sections of the school's required freshman composition courses are "technologically enhanced" this school year. Taught in computer-equipped classrooms, the courses will deal with using the Internet, designing Web pages and so on. All the freshman composition classes will move in this direction. "What we want to teach them is how to critically analyze the information available out there," he says.

At the Johns Hopkins University, students are usually more knowledgeable about the cyber world than the faculty, but they don't push for its inclusion in the classroom, says Brenda Knox, whose job in the school's Digital Knowledge Center is to help humanities professors use these techniques.

However, she can point to new uses of technology in the classroom, such as in a course on the literature of the French Revolution. "The professor wanted to show how the writings built on each other," she says, "so we scanned all the texts into a Web site and hyperlinked them" -- giving students a better idea of the relationships among the texts.

At Goucher, history professor Peter Bardaglio thought his freshman seminar last school year on growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was tailor-made for the Internet.

In his class, groups of students chose a song from the era, then worked up a Powerpoint presentation -- including music and video clips, much of it downloaded from Web sites -- to show how it illustrated the larger issues of its time. At the end of the semester, the presentations were put on a CD for students to keep.

But even Bardaglio sounds a note of caution. "You have to make sure the tail isn't wagging the dog," he says. "Schools invest a lot of money in this sort of technology, and there can be pressure to use it whether it's being used well or not. But the fact is this train is coming down the track, and you better learn how to deal with it."

Such statements make little impression at St. John's, which has missed a number of trains over the years. All students attend the same classes, reading and discussing the same books that take them from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century during their four years.

Flaumenhaft says electronics could find their way into St. John's classrooms, perhaps enhancing the rote learning of Greek and French or animating classical geometric diagrams. Or Powerpoint could be used for class presentations now written on the blackboard.

But he recalls a faculty meeting a few years ago when it was announced that the business department had acquired a fax machine. When someone asked whether the faculty could use it, the room broke up with laughter at the notion that a faculty member would need a fax machine.

'Focus on the text'

Flaumenhaft said the use of technology is limited by St. John's unique curriculum. "It's not research-oriented," he says. "We read these books and discuss them. You focus on the text."

Adam Schulman, a tutor -- as faculty members at St. John's are known -- says there is no need for e-mail to help communications in this community of about 400 students.

"When on a Monday evening students finish a three-hour seminar, the conversations continue in the coffee shops and dormitory rooms," he says. "They don't need e-mail for that."

Schulman, who has degrees in chemistry, physics and history of science, is one of the few technologically literate tutors. He helped establish the St. John's Internet connection a few years ago -- though he says its six modems are rarely filled.

But some Web sites seem de signed for St. John's. One is called the Perseus Project and includes ancient Greek texts and their translations. Click onto any word, and up comes an analysis of its grammatical form and an in-depth translation. It can come in handy for sophomores, who must present a translation of a Greek text.

Lars Peterson, a 19-year-old sophomore who runs the school's modest computer center, says that would be missing the point.

"The goal of that assignment is not to come up with a translation," he says. "It is to develop a whole coterie of intellectual skills."

Hughes, who studied computer science before entering St. John's, does see a role for computers in St. John's classes.

"Computers raise one of the questions we are always dealing with: What is it that makes man so special? Now, we are not only talking about being different from dogs and cats, but from some complex algorithm," he says, referring to the differences between human and computer intelligence. "I was thinking about this last night reading the book of Genesis."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°