Associate Professor of History
Tennessee Technological University
The three papers presented here today examine pioneering projects on the Internet designed to build connections unincumbered by distance or place. For me, the possibilities for connecting people is the most exciting prospect for what Al Gore calls "the information highway." Nonetheless, as Sara Tucker so aptly maintains, today "there is more mylar than gold on the world wide web." Teachers, academics, and students need to share their experiences in order to productively use the Internet as a tool and to avoid pitfalls that might lead to the next eight-track tape debacle. This session is one such brave attempt in the developing cyberworld.
Sara Tucker's paper shows how the Internet can open the door for new applications of a "traditional" historical methodology. I learned much about "doing" oral history from the World Wide Web sources she suggests and it is good to know that I can send my students to the same sites for direction. But that can also be done with books. Sara's outline suggests that the Internet can act as a means to better utilize oral history. For example, American women's history courses often include the ubiquitous oral history element. I have had mixed results as a student and teacher with such assignments. On the positive side, interviews do generally stimulate student interest in history and lead to connections between generations. But on the other hand, there is often little opportunity to share the information collected either among the students, the individuals interviewed, or the wider community. In addition, a single interview often leaves the student with an inadequate or singularly inappropriate source for interpreting history. Webpages or newsgroups may help to eliminate some of these problems and develop new possibilities for presentation. For example, the collected interviews on a webpage may be enhanced with pictures, audio, and/or video. A course webpage might include all the interviews conducted and linked to other applicable Internet sources. Such webpages also function as places to connect to the greater "community" to a single oral history effort. Individuals interviewed for the project and others interested in its results may visit the project webpage and even possibly interact with the students involved.
Sharon Michalove's experience with the Electronic Emissary Project underscores how the Internet can build connections among individuals otherwise unlikely to communicate. Sharon does an excellent and honest job showing the limitations of the experiment as it now stands. But despite its shortcomings, the Electronic Emissary Project suggests one way the "ivory tower" might become more accessible to those outside its walls. It appears that a narrow subject focus, close communication between the "learned sage" and the classroom teacher, and the sharing of information among the students would further enhance the project. Better use of listserve discussion groups or newsgroups is one easy solution. In addition, although Sharon points to two problems that she believes hindered the project, the unreliability of technology and the students' misinterpretation of information, I liked to caution that neither problem is exclusive to computer instruction. As anyone who does library research knows that the sources are not always available when you need them (the book is missing from the shelf or a tenured senior professor has had the work in their home for the past ten years). And, as teachers are well aware, even students who sit in the classroom often misinterpret the information distributed (just take a look at any set of midterm or final exams). For me, the biggest problem with the Emissary Project idea is the lack of support for such efforts most "learned sages" would receive from their universities. Nonetheless, this is always a problem when trying to build connections between academia and the broader community.
Elizabeth Hachten and Stephen Vincent are building connections among history faculty at the state universities in Wisconsin. The effort is much like one I participated in last June at the University of Virginia. There, a group of about thirty librarians, historians, and archivists gathered to "Make History on the Web". Our goal was to develop a universal webpage syllabus for the American History Survey. It was a fascinating week that taught me, most of all, that using such technology for teaching takes a tremendous amount of time and forethought. The bottom line: Collaboration is key. Hachten and Vincent recognize that although administrators, policymakers, politicians and the public at large have embraced technology as the answer to lowering costs and enhancing productivity in higher education; technical support is inadequate, and no one really knows where the shift will lead. Nonetheless, the University of Wisconsin Web Historians' Project suggests greater possibilities for computers and teaching than have been generally used to date. In other words, I no longer have to feel guilty for writing on the blackboard rather than converting my outlines to Powerpoint presentations. I suspect that another, though perhaps unintended, byproduct of the Wisconsin effort is a closer relationship among the participating faculty in the various state schools--and perhaps even among those who did not actually attend the Eau Claire workshop. But this circumstance also suggests that Internet "conversations" alone are not enough. Meeting face to face enhances the cyber experience and helps to build stronger Internet connections on all levels. In addition, new opportunities for the uses of computers to enhance teaching and learning, will develop as computers become more intuitive and easier to use.
In conclusion, I applaud this panel's participants for their willingness to share their successes, failures, and vision. Developing the Internet to build connections and enhance teaching and learning will take much hard work, focus, and flexibility (a euphemism for a willingness to sometimes fail). It is interesting that most of us talk about "playing" on the computer and "working" in the library. To paraphrase Sara Tucker, many of the decisions made today will help to replace the mylar with gold. Historians can contribute best by doing what they have always done best---push the envelop to answer "why", not just "what".