Faculty Initiative in Expanding Classroom Web Usage
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Some recognize revolutions before others and those who first grasp the implications of social transformations are not always high-ranking decision-makers. The truth of this generalization emerges when some faculty members identify the value of web applications to instruction well ahead of colleagues and the administration of their institution. These faculty members can promote the interests of their institution and profession during periods of rapid and radical social change. This is a story of how one modest device, instituted by a single faculty member acting alone, contributed to the expansion of classroom Web applications without superior intervention. Other initiatives were taking place simultaneous to the deployment of this mechanism and all must be considered together to explain the progress in instructional Web development at this institution. This story is worth the telling, however, because of the simplicity of the initiative and the disproportionate results it has produced in an environment stultifying Web development.
Bucknell University is a small, predominantly undergraduate institution that has long cultivated as its fundamental mission a residential experience with the teacher-scholar, a delicate creature blending exemplary teaching and solid research in a single person. Bucknell is also a fully wired institution; all offices and dorm rooms are connected to an intranet with multiple T-1 connections to the Web. Each year five or six classrooms are equipped with Internet connections and with data and video projection facilities that include the latest sound equipment.
Despite this technical progress, however, the Bucknell faculty merit
system ignores Web creativity in the evaluation of teaching and research. In fact, the
position of the current administration has been that Bucknell's niche is the delivery of
that all-American residential collegiate experience, where 'academics' is balanced equally
with participation in a rich social life and sports. Sixty percent of the student body
participates in intercollegiate or intramural athletics and the fraternity-sorority system
is deeply entrenched. Classrooms without walls pose a threat to residency and to the
university's stated mission, and for this reason are not encouraged.
2. Initial Efforts
By 1996, John Kendrick of the sociology department, Gene Spencer and Ralph Droms of the Computing and Communications Service, and I (from the modern languages department) found ourselves among a handful of faculty and technical staff members disturbed at the slow pace at which the university was adapting to the new methods for distributing knowledge and information. Our growing understanding of the Web's potential convinced us that the comparative effectiveness of instruction at Bucknell would eventually erode without this powerful tool. We liked the idea of eliminating the walls between the classroom and the dorm with the world at large invading both, and we wanted to speed this idea on its way.
We worried that the next generation of freshmen would know more about Web resources than their instructors, and that this might deeply undermine the latter's professional authority. Furthermore, courses based on the thinking of one instructor, we were convinced, would ultimately be replaced by 'community-taught' courses, courses based on shared resources created by several instructors at several universities located around the world. Movement toward such courses, we felt, would inevitably be pushed by the interactive, hands-on, multimedia applications contained in these resources, applications that would convey ideas and concepts with an immediacy never possible before. Such applications would probably not be reinvented by every instructor who needs them, but would be shared. We wanted Bucknell instructors not only to benefit from that bounty, but to contribute to it. We were convinced that many of our faculty would make contributions if they became aware of the new set of possibilities and were encouraged to adopt them.
Our first tack toward achieving this was to work through the existing committee structure, specifically the Campus-Wide Information Services committee (CWIS), where we were joined by other concerned colleagues. After two years of discussion (1995-1997), CWIS finally proposed to the administration two new posts, vice president of instructional technology and a Web master. The administration turned down the CWIS proposal and established instead an associate vice president of Instructional Resources and Services under the Vice President of Academic Affairs, conflating the positions of computer center chief and head librarian. The person hired to that position, Ray Metz, then converted a library position into that of Web master, giving us essentially the administrative results we had hoped for by 1998 without tipping the budget. Requests for earmarked funds and merit increments to support Web-based classroom technology were denied, however, so this gesture did not spur interest among the faculty. Only a handful of faculty members had Web presences in the spring of 1997 and there was little forward momentum.
3. Online Teaching Resources at Bucknell
At one point I was asked by my colleagues on CWIS to find out exactly how many faculty members had a curricular Web presence. My search of the list of faculty and departmental homepages for HTML course materials already online resulted in a pleasant surprise: slightly under ten percent of the faculty already had some Web materials for at least one of their courses online. It occurred to me that burying that fact in a committee report would serve less purpose than making it public. Publication might spur some of the remaining ninety percent of the faculty to action.
To bring the fact that the revolution had already reached Bucknell to the attention of the remainder of my colleagues, I created a Web page called Online Teaching Resources at Bucknell that simply listed all those courses already online with the name of the instructor. The page invited interested colleagues to contact either me or those whose names appeared on the page for advice in starting their own course Web resources. I included links to a list of online general resources that were not course-specific, such as my own Web of Online Dictionaries and Gary Grant's Sam Shepard Website. These listings were designed to inform the faculty that this revolution had already arriving at Bucknell and that it was two-pronged: a revolution in the range of materials applicable to the classroom and a revolution in the deliverability of our knowledge to the world at large. As important, however, was to distinguish those instructors who had already stepped into the current and identify them as resources for those who had not.
The computer center at Bucknell was far ahead of the faculty in developing Web materials. They had already integrated several interfaces for writing online quizzes, calendars, and glossaries that had been designed by different people and were dispersed across several different servers. A table linking all of these technical resources was included on the new resource page. The idea was to present a central source of information about Web-based instructional materials along with a source of tools for designing them.
The following year, a group in the computer center and the library organized a collaborative team called ITEC, Instructional Technology Enhancing the Curriculum Group, to respond to the nascent interest in Web-based instructional materials. This group had already discovered WebCT and Web-Course-in-a-Box, and so was poised to respond to faculty inquiries with simple interfaces for creating online course materials. With a link to this group's Web site, the resource page could announce, along with a list of extant courses, a standing body supporting the development of Web materials. Many faculty members moved from the resource Web site to ITEC to begin designing Web presences.
4. E-mail Tips
The page itself was the first step. The next step was to inform the faculty in a way that would not intimidate the skeptical or undermine the intent of the resource page in any way. I began sending an e-mail message at the beginning of each semester that simply alerted the faculty and administration to the existence of this page, offering to add listings overlooked and providing tips on how to create online materials simply and apply them to teaching. One of the first such alerts brought a new feature of MS Word to everyone's attention: the first version that allowed saving a document simply and directly to HTML. Another message alerted faculty to the possibility of using the a student-designed quiz interface to create online forms that check whether students have prepared assigned readings prior to coming to class. I hoped the simplicity of this method of launching a Web presence would appeal to those who were intimidated by the ostensible complexity of the new technology.
Apparently it did. I received a half dozen e-mail messages and as many personal comments thanking me, requesting the inclusion of links to courses that had been omitted, and asking for various types of advice and help. The Web page received more than three hundred hits over the next three months. Errors in the listings were periodically reported. The response suggested that this approach was reaching a substantial portion of the faculty and that many originally doubtful faculty members were seriously preparing course materials to place online.
Over the next two years the percentage of the faculty with online course materials increased from less than ten percent to about twenty-seven percent. This year thirty-five percent of the 280 full-time faculty members at Bucknell have a Web presence for at least one course. This semester another forty courses went online for the first time, bringing the total number of courses with online materials to 190 out of 725 offered this semester. It is impossible to gauge how much of that growth is to be credited to the online resource page and how much to other initiatives, such as ITEC, the technology fair sponsored by the library each year, and the several workshops conducted by myself and others. The response each semester to the e-mail announcement makes clear, however, that the resource page has contributed to the growth in faculty interest in the Web as a classroom tool. Given the small amount of effort required in building, maintaining, and promoting the site, even small rewards would be worth the investment.
Surprisingly, the Computer Science Department and School of Engineering did not lead the way in responding to the resource page although they certainly put up as many Web pages as other divisions. The strongest first response came from the humanities, where the archiving capacity of the Web appealed to the English and history faculties. One member of the English Department put up an on-line poetry journal. Interactivity and foreign language resources caught the imagination of the language faculty; access to materials in foreign countries was a temptation too rich to resist. The social sciences next showed interest in online resources, particularly online data resources generated in the United States but also materials on foreign servers. The natural sciences have made a weaker showing but have developed some of the most creative sites, using motion and interactivity to illustrate physical laws as well as photographic archives for courses in botany. Bucknell, in short, has progressed remarkably given the fact that no one has received any encouragement, recognition, or compensation for their labors by the administration.
6. Conclusion and Projection
It is not difficult to project future lines for the development of this small project. The next step is for a group of faculty respected for their web presence to select outstanding websites and recommend them to the campus at large. This recommendation could be in the form of actual awards distributed to Web pages or simple announcements in the campus newspaper and via email. While a self-selected faculty group cannot provide financial compensation, it could nonetheless bolster the spirits of Web site developers and lessen any sense that time spent developing course websites is time wasted.
There are additional features that could be added to a campus resource Web site; a chatroom, FAQ page, bulletin board, or list could provide answers to common questions arising among those setting out on this venture. Often technical groups like ITEC are too understaffed and overburdened to attend all questions posed to them, yet even simple-minded questions can be very important for the young Webster. A resource page is perfect for relieving technical groups of this burden. Outstanding examples of interactive applications could be linked directly to the website in a description of how they work and how they might be adapted to other courses. The most important function of a resource page, however, is simply to distinguish faculty members with Web presences, so that those new to the game can see straightaway where their most progressive colleagues stand and what it takes to reach that point.
Grant, Gary. The Sam Shepard Web Site. Retrieved on the World Wide Web: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/theatre_dance/Shepard/shepard.html.
Beard, Robert. Web of On-line Dictionaries. Retrieved on the World Wide Web: http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/diction.html.
Beard, Robert. On-line Teaching Resources at Bucknell. Retrieved on the World Wide Web: http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/buweb.html.