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The H-Net Community: Building Bridges

Envisioning the Future: Creating the Humanities Classroom of the 21st Century

OAH Newsletter: Volume 25, Number 4 -- November 1997
Copyright Organization of American Historians
Redistributed with Permission

by Page Putnam Miller
October 8, 1997

On the weekend of September 25, over three hundred people gathered at the Kellogg Center at Michigan State University to explore the most effective ways of using new technologies in the teaching of the humanities and especially the teaching of history. This is one of the best conferences I have attended in years. I think its success rested on the shared assumption of the participants that we are moving into new territories that have both pit falls and exciting new possibilities and that we need to work very deliberatively and collectively to ensure that we end up with enriched educational opportunities in the new digital environment. The National Endowment for the Humanities and H-Net, the conference sponsors, and Mark Kornbluh and Melanie Shell, the conference coordinators, assembled some of the pioneers in the field of teaching in the digital age as well as many of the teachers in the trenches trying to make the most of new opportunities and changing demands by their university administrators.

George Landow, a noted writer on the digital word, gave the keynote address and set the tone for the high quality of the conference. He examined the qualities of both the book and the electronic text and posed the very basic question of how to maximize the advantages of the electronic text. Describing hypertext, Landow used terms such as multi-sequential and links and trails between documents. He also considered issues such as self-contained hypertext in a CD-ROM verses hypertext on the Internet and the differences between books that have been digitized and electronic texts written for their hypertext capabilities.

Unlike many academic conferences, this one included few presentations of formal papers. Instead there were round table discussions of basic principles and directions, demonstration sessions followed by discussions of strengthens and weaknesses, and conv ersations session on such issues as setting standards, university policies, interaction with the commercial world. In the kick off session titled "The Cutting Edge: Multimedia Presentations," Edward Ayers gave one of the four demonstration/presentations. In talking about "The Valley of the Show: Two Communities in the Civil War," Ayers stressed not only the engaging research opportunities that this interactive program offered to students but he also warned of the enormous costs and time of building a data base of diaries, newspapers, military records, tax lists, church records, and other primary sources for just two counties during the civil war era. Ayers' project is in its third year and has been funded by the University of Virginia and the NEH. The Web site is http://www.iath.virginia.edu/vshadow2/

There were some panel sessions; however, most used a demonstration mode for the presentation and were geared at addressing such issues as faculty-library partnerships in linking classrooms to sources and integrating new technology into classroom pedagogy. A session on distance learning explored ways to resist the dilution of teaching and to instead to enrich the learning process.

An afternoon electronic poster session gave participants a chance to visit over two dozen booths to see and learn about a wide range of multimedia educational projects. Throughout the afternoon small groups huddled around various terminals to sample the projects and to talk about the their strengths and weaknesses with their directors. Randy Bass, the director of the American Studies Crossroads Project, talked about the ambitious goals of the American Studies Association in creating a comprehensive on line resource to assist faculty and students in making the best use of technology in their teaching, learning, research and global collaborations. The electronic crossroads web site, a work in process, is being sponsored by the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, the U.S. department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and the Annenberg/CPB Project. The Web site is http://www.georgetown.edu/crossroads/

The final day provided opportunities to attend workshops on teaching with primary sources at the National Archives, creating Webpages, using hypermedia in the history classroom, as well as one for H-Net editors to deal with technical questions. Many of the editors of H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine participated in the conference and their commitment to providing a positive, supportive, equalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas contributed to the success of the conference. The H-Net website includes not only information about H-Net's 88 free electronic, interactive lists but also book reviews, and information on this conference. Currently the conference program and some of the sessions are online and H-Net is in the expand ing this site. The H-Net Web site is http://www.h-net.msu.edu and the site for the "Envisioning The Future" Conference is http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~envision/

I left the conference having been richly stimulated but with an overload of information, images, and vexing questions. Yet it was the strength of the conference that it constantly called the participants: to evaluate the content and the learning process and not just the bells and whistles, to explore the impact of the new technology on the evolving role of the university, to study the cost/effectiveness of interactive projects, to examine the ways that new technology can enable us to do things that were impossible in the past, to uphold high standards of content and student performance in the digital age, to use new technology to enhance relationships with students, and always to remember that technology is not an end in itself but is a tool. [an error occurred while processing this directive]