Gertrude Stein Was Wrong
Gertrude Stein was probably right about roses and undeniably right about Oakland, California, but she was wrong about WWW pages, whichever of her most famous dicta you try to apply to them. A web page is not a web page, but the good ones have a lot of there there.
A little history, first of all, for old timers. The WWW was a hypothesis more than a reality for most of us, even ftp- and gopher-savvy Internet-crawlers, until Mosaic was released in the summer of 1993. Even so, it took weeks to months before many of us got our machines configured to handle a *real* network (at the time I was using a NeXT machine in my office, so the first Mosaic was no help, and a pre-SLIP/PPP modem connection from home) and then realized that we too could write in HTML. On deep excavation, I find that as a fairly typical early adopter I took the time over spring break in 1994 to create my first web page. Over that summer and fall, I spent a lot of time showing people how to use the WWW (". . . and this is the *back* button, because it takes you *back* . . ." -- young readers will laugh, but so very recently were these concepts so fresh and novel). In October of 1994, Netscape was released and won near universal market penetration faster than any product I can think of in history. About the same time, I grew weary of explaining the back button and related concepts and built a web-site that would explain how the WWW can be used for teaching: that site is still up and running and getting lots of hits: "New Tools for Teaching". Though I posted a disclaimer as long as two years ago on the site, it still pulls in several thousand readers a month and I think there is a good reason for it: with Netscape as killer app, the WWW spawned a paradigm shift in the way we process information, and nothing has really changed since. Explain the concepts of the WWW once in 1994, I now realize, and however primitive it may seem, it can still do the job in 1998. Oh, we have plugins and animated gifs and java scripts now, but the underlying concept remains the same.
1994 to about 1996 were the last heady days of academic domination of the Internet. I mark it from my experience as 1996 when the commercial revolution hit the net and I began to expect that most sites would be .com sites and likewise to expect that most of my pedestrian information needs (weather, travel, news, foreign currency rates, names of actors in forgotten movies) would be taken care of by the WWW. In that moment, I had my first undergraduate come up to me and exclaim, "I just found out that the web has only been around since 1993! I just assumed it had been here forever!" He's now working for Microsoft.
And it was about the same time that the web universalized itself on campuses. Every institution and virtually every department has a web page, and now virtually every faculty member on many campuses also boasts a URL. But here's where Stein was wrong. Too many such sites are flat and dead: doing the job a ditto master used to do in its characteristic smudged blue, handing out information authoritatively, a little dated and with typos. The best sites are information rich and are thoughtfully integrated with classroom practice, with student contributions as well as faculty pronunciamentos. The technological possibilities are momentarily hung up at a crucial point: though instant messaging and whiteboarding and chat rooms are all possible now, no standards have emerged and no consistent broadly-supported formats have emerged. Accordingly, some of the most interesting work is being done by people experimenting with those features and at the same time running the risk that they will be thrown into obsolescence by some new killer app. There are competitors out there trying to create that killer app (see, for example, http://www.tribal.com), but the horses have just left the gate and it will be a while before the round the turn for home. What would I *like* for the next generation of tools? Transparent and widely-standardized whiteboarding, easy Internet telephony, and at least relatively easy Internet videoconferencing. All these things are possible now, but carry a high support burden: I'll be ready to use them when they're genuinely plug-and-play.
There is one reason for optimism: the pig is almost through the python. I think in retrospect we will look at 1995-98 on college and university campuses as a moment of technological slowdown, incredible as that may seem. By this, I mean that innovation has slowed as technology has universalized. I know well from my administrative responsibilities that the challenge of the last several years has been taking the paradigm shift down the last mile to every desktop and dorm room on campus. This has meant a huge expenditure of time, effort, and money: but I think we're almost there. The question now is refreshing technology rather than installing it, and soon we will have gotten to a point where managing the desktop to a steadily advancing state will cease to be the immense challenge it has been in recent years. (Standardization of operating systems, whatever one may think of the fortunes of the winners and losers, is helping substantially.)
At the same time, we face of course some techno-backlash. The millennium has not yet arrived, and when it does it will be *bad* news for technology. Skepticism and caution in executive suites remains an issue to be faced, frankly and thoughtfully, with hard figures and careful plans rather than with zeal and hype. The revolution is over: it's time to build.