Schooled in cyberspace

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

September 11, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

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.

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