Presented at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the
African Studies Association
Panel: H-AFRICA & the Classroom
Session IV-N2, Sunday, 11 am - 1 pm
24 November 1996
Last Online Revision: 4 June 1999
For centuries teachers have devised and refined their methods to communicate favorite themes of history. Some have explored the veracity of the spoken word, as Jan Vansina did with his methodology to assess oral tradition; others, such as Harold Marcus and Mel Page, have advanced the power of the electric word with H-AFRICA . This new teaching technology, symbolized by this H-Net family member, is of global importance.
Yet many would be on-line teachers outside the West remain off-line. Lack of telephone lines, limited education, and low income have delayed their connection. The sudden presence of on-line technology has made such disparities more visible, as evidenced by the Western character of H-Net subscriber lists.
Still, the twenty-first century holds so much promise. As the world gradually comes on-line producing economies of scale, costs should fall, wireless ways to transfer data will be implemented, and computer literacy at the user level will be simplified. Those of us fortunate enough now to have Internet access have the unique opportunity to engage in ongoing seminars with hundreds of colleagues present, to access resources in distant libraries, and to develop an exciting teaching tool that often doubles as entertainment, much like the relationship between documentaries and cinema. After some hesitation, I buckled myself in firmly behind my search engine in early 1995 and began my journey to discover the fundamentals of teaching with on-line resources. This paper examines some of my preliminary successes and failures.
Pre-buckle reflections led me to the now amusing conclusion that, apart from new demands on my time, on-line teaching would be easy enough to implement. I was somewhat computer literate. My university had about twenty computer labs; six had Internet access. Entering freshmen had begun to receive computer accounts as part of their registration process. The university provided me with access to the Internet from both home and school offices. All I needed to do, so I thought, was to adapt the promise of the Internet to a major component of my pedagogy--the writing-intensive summary/reaction journal.
My students summarize and react to all lectures and course readings in journals. At the semester's end the better students will have created a solid final exam study guide in an essay format. Students react after each summary by selecting sections of that summary to associate with their personal experience. Since reactions force students to compare and contrast events in history with their own experience, reactions help make history more personal. The more reflective reactions also serve as memory devices that promote course retention.
My task then became one of incorporating on-line teaching resources into the journal. My goal was to assess the effectiveness of on-line assignments by reviewing summaries and reactions in journals. In theory, the journal and Internet assignments seemed to complement each other. Both were worked on out of class and usually accomplished on a computer. Both could be adapted to the summary/reaction writing-to-learn format and evaluated by using the same standardized journal assessment form. Finally, both could be tailored to support extemporaneous teaching opportunities.
In my mind, the journal and the Internet then shook hands and began their teaching partnership. As the fall semester approached, I prioritized my on-line goals:
While only the third goal was relatively easy to achieve, all eventually enhanced teaching and learning.
Although my seventy freshmen had been issued computer accounts, only two had activated them and less than ten had Internet experience. Just three of my twenty history majors, whose arrival at East Carolina preceded the new era of automatically-assigned accounts, had been on-line. I could not use the new technology until all students in each class were on-line. We visited a campus computer lab, acquired instructional handouts, and in the case of the freshmen, tried to log on. As soon as each student succeeded, I required him/her to send me an e-mail of confirmation. Even with my assistance, some two weeks were lost to a variety of start-up problems.
Several students could not activate their new accounts because computer technicians had entered incorrect social security numbers, required from first-time users as their initial password. A more common delay was logging on incorrectly, then being unable to restart the logon procedure--getting the "reconnected" response. Unaware of a helpful command to resolve this quickly, these students had to wait about fifteen minutes when, by default, the mainframe "disconnected." Most students took such frustrations well and remained keen to learn about this new technology.
While I endeavored to get some hundred students on-line, my home page builder blues continued. My first mistake was to assume that my home page would be an extension of my e-mail account in East Carolina's IBM mainframe. After the school's automatic home page builder file failed me several times, I discovered from a colleague that I needed a separate account in a different university computer, the VAX, before I could construct an academic home page. Another week eased by.
With my new computer account in hand at last, I could now begin to build my home page, or so I thought. I wanted to create my home page from my home office, which required the expertise of another computer resource person who was independent of those who issued my new account. While the processes of setting up a home page on and off campus were similar, I did not know how to carry out either procedure.
Instructional handouts were written in computerese--full of platforms, arguments, and elements--the authors did not speak well to the uninitiated. Personalized instructions via e-mail were helpful, but it often took days to resolve simple obstacles. My favorite response was, "I am not sure you are addressing your problems to the right person." Some queries went unanswered; some were lost in cyberspace. As John N. Muafangejo of Namibia once advised, "Hope and optimism in spite of the present difficulties."
In the meantime, I was growing increasingly frustrated with assigning Internet sites in class. It seemed to take forever to chalk out several 50-plus case sensitive character addresses. Students made too many mistakes copying addresses from the board or later typing them onto their computer screens. On several occasions I strode self-confidently into class to assign a wonderful net site I had just visited, only to find out at our next class that students, for cyberspace reasons unknown, had been unable to access it. If I could only get my home page up and running, I kept telling myself, I could have students access Internet sites by clicking on them, listed by title, from my home page.
What a splendid day it was, after two months of time and some work, when with a hint of pride I proclaimed to my students the birth of my academic home page and the end of writing multi-character addresses on the board.
Surfing to me will always imply the thrill and danger of riding ocean waves, whether on a board at Hawaii's North Shore or with your body propelled by flippers at Makapuu, The Glen in Cape Town, or Durban's North Beach. Californians who have surfed The Wedge at Newport Beach may have a difficult time getting used to "surfing" being expropriated by landlubbing computer nerds. Then again, by the time we wave riders become aware of this imperial compliment, we are well on our way to becoming the sedentary, confined netters who so contrast surfing's free spirit. It is a bittersweet irony. Yet "surfing the net" seems to imply a leisure that "searching the academic net" does not.
An invaluable Internet assignment is the specific document site. By a document I mean, for example, primary evidence, articles, books, and book reviews. You choose the site you want students to read and assess, entitle its address on your academic home page, then have students click/select it. The electronic information they read can be used to create research papers, supplement class lectures, and promote discussion. In my classes document sites are most often used to supplement lectures and readings and are summarized and reacted to in the journal. When I reviewed journal entries on document assignments, I found that students enjoyed the novelty of using substantive Internet assignments to supplement standard teaching tools and resources.
The academic listserv often discusses issues raised by data found at document sites. Sometimes new interpretations are floated. Occasionally, the listserv is used to survey views about course topics. The listserv is often characterized as an extended seminar. Student subscribers to H-AFRICA, for example, are introduced to interdisciplinary conversations about Africa-related subjects. Listservs like H-AFRICA are moderated; all submissions are approved by the editors. Publication of approved postings depends on the workload of the editors. Postings usually appear within forty-eight hours.
Unmoderated listservs like NUAFRICA, owned by Keith Breckenridge, permit direct postings to subscribers. Those subscribers who want to address colleagues on an issue can post their messages almost instantly to all subscriber e-mail accounts. Postings must conform to the rules--sometimes called the "voice"--of the listserv. A danger of the unmoderated listserv is that private messages sometimes become embarrassingly public when they are accidentally sent to all subscribers.
With some hesitation, I decided to challenge my students by having them monitor listservs related to our courses. My World Civilization undergraduates monitored H-World of the H-Net family; history majors in my Middle East course monitored both MENA-H and Islam-L, both moderated by Joseph W. Roberts. Early results were mixed. The major problem proved to be my lack of control over the topics of conversation that appeared on the listserv. While the document site could be chosen to coincide with lectures and readings, the unpredictability of listserv conversations often did not directly contribute to the course. Some listserv postings were of the "Can you help me?" variety. Others listed jobs. Still others discussed subjects outside course topics.
When the semester started I instructed students to summarize all postings in a weekly entry that listed the topics, then to explore and react to the one topic that best helped them understand the course. With my students already writing daily, even this limited listserv assignment was not a good investment of their time. Student journal entries convinced me to revise the task; I encouraged them to review all postings as usual, but only to write about those few I specifically assigned in class.
This limitation aside, the academic listserv can be a valuable on-line resource. Students learn what a listserv is and become more computer literate. Students can monitor professors discussing the research and teaching components of their courses. Students can follow the electric seminar in which different interpretations are often exchanged. Students are challenged by the level of discussion. When the listserv has a home page with archives, as is the case with H-AFRICA, students can explore book reviews, "threads" (groups of postings about important issues), archived documents, and click/selectable addresses to other sites related to Africa.
The cathode ray tube or television has often been accused of conveying cultural imperialism and causing cultural degradation. The promise of teaching with on-line resources has the ironic potential of using much of that same addictive, sedentary technology to promote knowledge. In the most recent Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, H-AFRICA's Harold Marcus and others discuss the importance of H-Net to the academy. Those of you who remain hesitant or convinced that the Internet is a superficial fad should read the OAH essays, archived and hyperlinked at H-SAfrica; in "Logs for H-SAfrica" select and enter "November 1996." You will find the ten essays listed amongst other topics for that month.
While it is a short-term fact that most Africans remain outside the Internet, those fortunate few of us presently connected appreciate the enormous information potential on-line teaching offers our species. Electric archives and seminars promise to be important factors in creating the evolving character of world civilization. Homocentricity, electrified by teaching with on-line resources, seems destined to come to life in the next millennium.
First Online Edition: 24 December 1997
Last Revised: 4 June 1999