1997 Annual Conference, New York City

 THE MAGIC CLASSROOM I: THE PROMISE

Web-Based Distance Learning
Jerrold Maddox
The Pennsylvania State University

To begin, I'd like to show you what the three different courses I have taught and continue to teach look like (plus one I am developing to begin teaching in the Fall of 1997) so you will have as sense of the visual environments the students and I have been working in before I talk about the teaching and learning experiences, the most important aspects of which are not, to me, visual. They are, rather, social.

The courses and variants are linked below:

Commentary on Art I  · II   -   Drawing for Electronic Media I ·  II  · III

Introduction to Drawing   -   Interactive Learning & Design


At the CAA 1995 Annual Conference in San Antonio I gave, with David Lloyd Brown, a presentation about using electronic tools in teaching and learning. At that time I have just begun teaching a class, Commentary on Art, over the Internet to another Penn State campus. When I presented what I was doing then everything about it was new - Netscape went into its first final release a week before the class started and none of the software I used existed when I started to develop the course - and I was full of enthusiasm about the project and the larger possibilities of teaching using what the Web and Hypertext Markup Language offered. My comment was then, paraphrasing Blake, "HTML is eternal delight."

Now four different courses and a half-dozen classes later I am still as full of enthusiasm about HTML and the Web and have a lot more experience. It is some of the later I'd like to share.

A little history - one weekend in the late Spring of 1995 John Slorp, the President of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I had an email exchange about teaching using the Internet (he had seen an essay of mine on-line about teaching Commentary on Art) and he suggested I teach a course, Drawing for Electronic Media, for MCAD from Penn State. I agreed and have now taught the course three times.

At about the same time I proposed and started to develop two courses, Commentary on Art and Introduction to Drawing, to be taught through Continuing and Distance Education at Penn State using on-line components. I had taught the first as an on-line course but it was completely redesigned for Distance Education and I had also taught the second for five years as a Distance Ed offering but without any on-line components. Both took longer to get up than I had expected - something to be planned for when the offerings are given within the context of a large university (if was very different with MCAD) - but both are up now and enrolling students.

In the past three months, to address a general education need that I feel should be met, I am developing a new course to be taught in a large computer class room (60-70 stations) in the Fall of 1997. It is called Interactive Learning & Design and is meant to teach students how to do research using the Internet and how to present what they learn on the Internet. It is an inquiry based course using study groups within the class to exchange information, comment and criticism.

Two things have struck me the most about teaching classes on-line are: One, is that students are so different from each other, share so little common culture, are often in different locations and at very different places in their lives, personally and professionally, and do not share a common physical classroom in cyberspace that it is very difficult to establish a cohesive group. And, two, that the level on intimacy is high and immediate. A student will share personal information from the start with a freedom that is unimaginable in the conventional class.

Examples of the first - in one class there were students residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Memphis, Tennessee and San Jose, California enrolled. One was a college ceramics teacher, two were MFA candidates, two more were exchange students from Mexico and one was Hmung immigrant from Vietnam. The other eleven were undergraduates, mostly from the Midwest, all had different needs and different backgrounds. Added to this that the students had different physical setups and came to their computers from a particular local weather (anyone who has been to Minneapolis in the Winter knows how important the latter is - but the effects whether the student is at home or in a the lab, how fast their connection is, how hot or cold or crowded the room is may not be as immediately evident).

In another class there are only six students enrolled. But there are five women and one man and they range in age from 16 to 68 and they are in four different countries (US, Norway, Italy and Saudi Arabia), three different time zones and with different customs, even if they share the same time zone, as Italy and Norway do. Even the sense of what the day of the week means changes as this note from my student in Arabia shows about a chat session set for Friday 6pm GMT:

Sorry I missed the chat session. Did not get the message in time. Will this be every Friday night? That's perfect for me. Friday is like Sunday night for us.

Creating out of these differing backgrounds, ages and environments a sense of a 'class', a shared culture, no matter how ephemeral, is, to my mind the most challenging aspect of on-line teaching.

The frankness of students has been startling to me. They are willing to say almost anything. Two short stories, one very serious and one very trivial, give a concrete sense of this: a student in his first communication with me said "and drugs saved my ass from AIDS". This was followed by a frank discussion of his professional, financial and mental health problems. Another student, in a chat involving all the other students in the class discussing a field trip we were taking to Washington DC, said that the last time she was there she "took a pee behind the Washington Monument" and then added "I can't believe I said that." And, without missing a beat, returned to the discussion of what museums we were going to visit. Being on-line seems to open everyone up and make the students want the teacher to do the same. A Socratic resistance to self-revelation just won't do. They want to know what you think and feel if they can't see what you look like.

It appears to me that confession and self-revelation are what takes the place in the on-line environment of the sense of hierarchy and of visual contact that determine so much of the character of classroom teaching. I do miss the eye contact some times, but it is amazing how much the words can tell when that is all you have. I relish not having to be the authority and answering the question "Now what exactly do you want?"

How to shape and structure the different class sites to use these qualities - the scattered assumptions and attitudes and the willingness to be self-revelatory - to the students advantage, to make them work for rather than against learning is what has preoccupied me the most in designing the course ware.

But before that can be addressed some fundamentals of Web design have to be recognized, especially if you do your work, as I do, using a modem connection rather than a T1 or better. I try to keep the size of the homepage as small as possible (20K at most), as simple as possible and visually transparent. (Waiting for an image they haven't asked to see is turns more people off than anything else.) This means few images and few layers within the sites, and diverse ways to get into and out of them.

Also make some white space and keep down the clutter. Here are some rules of thumb that work for me:

Start every page with a break - the <BR> markup
Put all the text in blockquotes - the <BLOCKQUOTE> </BLOCKQUOTE>markup
Center all images - the <CENTER></CENTER> markup
Don't complicate the site with scroll bars on Frames, borders around Tables and mixed type faces.
These are, as I said, only rules of thumb. They can make most sites easier to read and use but can be broken when it is makes sense (as I did on this site with the images at the top). I suspect that they will be even more important to keep in mind as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), with and without JavaScript enhancements come into wider use and make complicated Web site easier to make.

As helpful as I find them, these guidelines treat the Web site primarily as an object - like a print, a vase or an ad. That is not, I don't believe, the best way to view them because they create an environment more than a thing, a situation more than a scene, more to be engaged in than contemplated. They are 'still and still moving', a space to move through and engage when and where you chose. They need to made so finding your way in, through and back out again is easy, clear and pleasing - the Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight.

If the site is designed to make navigating in it rapid, lucid and pleasant, what are some of the ways for a group to develop exchanges between its members other individuals and the instructor?

I have built in five different ones to meet the needs of different courses - all use Web pages and email, and some use a listserv, chats and a bulletin board. Although they all overlap each does a particular job and offers differing opportunities for communication and access to information.

Which is chosen is determined by the needs of the course and what the instructor feels comfortable with - I like real-time chat very much and it seems to me that it helps, more than any other of the tools, to give the group some coherence, although listservs and bulletin boards also do that in a slower way. (Other instructors I know dislike chat and prefer to do have all the contact with the class through email and a listserv.)

Chat can also give a vivid sense of being part of a larger world than the one in which the student is located physically - one of the most successful classes, pedagogically, I ever had involved my students from an isolated Penn State campus in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when there were four drop-ins, people who were not in the class and just happened to find the site. One was a 5th grade teacher in Wyoming, another a computer artist in Chicago, the third a graduate student in Education at Penn State and, finally, a business student from Finland. Everyone got into the discussion which was focused on a short quotation from Susan Sontag's On Photography, a text for the course. The visitors to the class commented on how the discussion had substance (it is lacking in most chats) and the students were delighted by the outsiders participation and to be invited to visit the computer artist's site to see what he was doing. But most of all it made them feel they had been somewhere, somewhere else, and it had been possible to learn and experience something through others different from themselves. They had connected with others in distant places through thought and conversation about interesting ideas.

Access to discussion is important to how I find that students learn on-line but so is access to other kinds of information. So many educational sites make is very difficult to find you way in like this one - Literary Narrative in an Information Age. So I am trying to structure my new course so that it is very easy to move from one kind of source to another almost without thinking about it (the technology isn't good enough yet to make it really transparent, but that is the goal). Here is what is at the top of all the course pages (the markup here is using a table, not an imagemap):

Syllabus     LIAS     Britannica     Tools     Chat     Class Members     Search   FAQ

Most are self-explanatory - the Syllabus is a chart of the course, LIAS is telnet access to the Penn State Library catalogue, Britannica is to The On-line Encyclopedia Britannica (a wonderful, and growing, resource), Tools is a source for both learning how to put their work up on the Web and for putting them up, Chat is the entry to the chat client, Class Members takes you to both email links and links to the students Web work, Search leads to a search tool, in this case it will be Yahoo, and finally a FAQ, answers to frequently asked questions about using the Internet and this particular course. Together they make it possible to get to about anywhere in the on-line class space.

The British critic, Cyril Connolly, remarked that "there is integrity in true worldliness that a saint would envy". True worldliness is what this kind of learning can offer. It is without boundaries, encourages individual integrity and can carry both the student and teacher away from the abuses of power and intellectual provincialism that stain so much of our thought and learning.

Through thoughtful design (and an improving technology ) I hope to use absence of hierarchy, the willingness to be self-revealing and ease of sharing ideas and the results of our study to develop a teaching and learning environment in which imaginative creative work, serious research, perceptive critical commentary and a lively engagement in the life of mind are possible regardless of who the students are or where they. It is, in fact I have found, happening already.

February 14, 1997



This address for this site is:

http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/x/jxm22/CAA/JMCAApaper.html